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CSUN's Bargain-Basement Volleyball Program Showing Profit

February 01, 1996|IRENE GARCIA

John Price isn't the kind of guy who likes to complain or dwell on things. He prefers to spend energy working hard with what little resources he has.

That's a good thing because the men's volleyball team he coaches at Cal State Northridge is like David and the competition is Goliath.

The Matadors have half the scholarships of most of the teams they compete against in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation, the nation's toughest volleyball conference. Yet Northridge beats many of them regularly.

Northridge is a consistent winner against the likes of USC, Stanford and Pepperdine, all of which have 4.5 scholarships, the NCAA maximum for men's volleyball. Northridge has 2.5.

Opposing programs also get extra funding for uniforms and meals. But the Matadors always hang in there. This week, for instance, they're ranked sixth nationally.

The financial disadvantage, however, makes it tough to keep up with the UCLAs and Hawaiis of the collegiate volleyball world.

"There's a couple of factors responsible for our success and the biggest one is luck," said Price, in his 11th season as Northridge coach. "Every year the top three or four impact freshmen wouldn't even consider us. They go to the traditional powers like UCLA, Stanford and Pepperdine.

"But after the dust settles, there's talent left. We usually get athletes we can develop, guys with raw talent."

Northridge has done a great job with the leftovers. The Matadors have made six consecutive playoff appearances and Price has a 167-135 career record at the school.

So it's not like the Matadors are getting whipped on the court the way they are at the bank.

"They have a great program," said UCLA Coach Al Scates, who has led his team to a record 15 NCAA championship titles. "They really have done a good job and now they have a great tradition."

The past six years the Matadors have been ranked among the nation's top nine teams. From 1990 to '94, Northridge didn't fall below No. 6 and in 1993 the Matadors advanced to the NCAA championship match.

Northridge lost to UCLA in a nationally televised match that left many in volleyball circles asking, "Cal State Who?"

"That was a turning point in our program," Price said. "We had players on our team that season that gave us instant credibility."

Through the years Price has searched in unexpected places for athletes.

He spotted Coley Kyman, a star on the 1993 unit, while Kyman was a player on a poor Reseda High team.

"Fortunately their team was terrible so they didn't enter any tournaments and he didn't get much exposure," Price said. "That's the kind of athlete we have to hunt down."

The Matadors also look outside the U.S. for players. German Axel Hager started at Northridge in 1992 and '93 and his countryman, Oliver Heitmann, was one of the Matadors' top hitters in '94 and '95.

This year, Northridge has another German, middle blocker Dirk Schlueter, and a setter from Finland, Mikko Sivonen.

"We always answer all the letters from foreign players because we're a little more open to solicitation," Price said. "If we got the cream of the crop of the U.S. players we wouldn't be as open to that."

Because Northridge doesn't have the resources to attract elite players from any country, Price approaches coaching differently from many of his colleagues.

He must mold young athletes and work extra hours to help them reach the level of play required to win in Division I volleyball.

"We teach basics still because we're dealing with a different type of athlete," Price said. "Maybe I'm wrong but I don't see other programs doing that. They don't have to."

Can you imagine UCLA's Scates teaching his setter, a junior college transfer, the dynamics of ball placement? It would never happen because the Bruins recruit high school stars who already possess refined skills.

Price isn't discouraged, though. He sees his program moving forward, albeit slowly. For instance, Jeff Campbell, his top assistant of seven years, is finally being paid a full-time salary.

Moves such as that offer Price and his staff encouragement. But he won't deny that it would help greatly to have more money for his team.

"It would be nice to get out of the fund-raising-to-survive mode and get into the fund-raising-to-improve mode," Price said.

And what would he do with the extra money?

"I'd like to take better care of the guys," he said. "That's my main concern. Not that they're being treated badly, but I wish they could get the treatment the big schools get."

Price offered an example. At a tournament a couple of years ago, Long Beach State players were commenting that they got $23 for meal money while Northridge players only got $13.

"And recently the same bus driver who drove us to a match at Loyola Marymount had driven the women's basketball team there for a game," Price said.

"He said they stopped for a team dinner. For short trips like that I tell my guys, 'Eat before you get on the bus!' We just can't afford to have any excess spending."

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