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No. 1 Rating Gives 49ers Lofty Goal : Volleyball: Coach Brian Gimmillaro enters his ninth year with more varied and complicated game plans to keep a step ahead of the competition.


LONG BEACH — The video camera rolled in the dimly lit gym, and the Cal State Long Beach women's volleyball team practiced at the net without a ball.

Volleyball has become so technical, said Coach Brian Gimmillaro, that the slightest advantage can make or break a season.

As players jumped and moved along the net in pairs, Gimmillaro explained that they should put their hands together, bend elbows a degree or two forward and curve their fingers ever so slightly over the net to simulate blocking an opponent's shot.

Long Beach, which reached the national semifinals last season, is again expected to be one of the best teams in the nation. Volleyball Monthly magazine ranks the 49ers No. 1.

"That rating is rather generous," said senior middle blocker Danielle Scott, a two-time All-American. "We have a lot of new people, we're young and not that experienced."

In other preseason polls, the Big West Conference coaches pick Long Beach to finish second behind the University of the Pacific. The American Volleyball Coaches Assn. rates the 49ers second behind defending national champion Stanford.

Based on past performances, it is easy to see why Long Beach is ranked so high. The 49ers are 66-5 over the last two seasons and have produced the nation's best player three of the last five seasons. They have won two consecutive Big West titles, and, in 1989, were national champions.

Gimmillaro enters his ninth season with a record of 211-70. More important has been his impact on the development of women's college volleyball.

Before the Upstate New York native moved to Long Beach from Gahr High School in Cerritos, the 49ers had a modestly successful program.

The energetic Gimmillaro brought a new look, one culled through years of experimentation as the head of a youth volleyball club. Speed, ball placement and power were largely trademarks of the men's game. But Gimmillaro put them in the women's court.

He likens his approach to basketball--the team that works together to get open shots usually wins.

"Just because a basketball team can run up and down the court faster than anyone doesn't mean they will score," he said.

Gimmillaro said he will try to lift the 49ers another notch this season because many teams have copied his style.

"We will be as varied and complicated as the team can handle, maybe even more than last year," he said. "I don't know where we can go yet."

A key to the team's fortunes could be Joy McKienzie, a 5-foot-7 senior who will switch from defensive specialist to setter. She replaces Sabrina Hernandez, who had 1,420 assists last year and was the team's emotional leader.

The setter is like the team's quarterback, calling plays, spotting shifts in the opponents' lineup and delivering the ball to front-line players for kill shots. McKienzie has not played the position in a game since her junior year in high school, but she backed up Hernandez in practice in 1992.

"I feel comfortable and confident," McKienzie said. "There's a lot more hustle involved, because I'm touching the ball all the time."

Gimmillaro is also confident. "Joy is a phenomenal player, a leader and quick learner," he said.

The 6-foot-2 Scott, who may be asked to hit from the left side this year, is in the finest shape of her career. A native of Baton Rouge, La., she led the nation in kills the last two seasons, and played for the United States at the World University Games this summer in Buffalo, N.Y.

"This is a rebuilding year," she said. "We have to get used to each other as the year goes on."

But she added, "We don't plan to drop any games. We like the challenge of being ranked No. 1."

Other returning players include Nichelle Burton, a junior 5-10 outside hitter who ranked second on the team in kills last year, and Brita Schwerm, a 5-10 sophomore who started late last season as a middle blocker. She will switch to left-side hitter.

Also back are reserves Prentice Perkins, a back-row specialist, and senior Krissee Sether and freshman Allyson Carpenter, who redshirted last season. Both are outside hitters.

Gimmillaro has high hopes for a pair of middle blockers--6-1 Traci Dahl, who transferred from Cerritos College, and 6-3 Michelle Jones from Santa Monica College.

The season begins Aug. 28 with a game in the university gym against an alumni team.

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