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UC IRVINE NOTEBOOK / JOHN WEYLER

Coach Calls Women's Volleyball Defections the Cost of Change

September 24, 1996|JOHN WEYLER

Junior outside hitter Amy Pimentel and senior middle blocker Brandy Smerko have quit the UC Irvine women's volleyball team for personal reasons.

Pimentel, the team's returning kill leader last year and a Big West freshman team selection in 1994, and Smerko, the team captain who led the team in hitting percentage this season, were benched for a Sept. 14 match against Sacramento State and last week separately informed first-year Coach Merja Connolly that they were quitting.

"With change, these are going to be some of the results," Connolly said. "We changed the level of work, discipline and passion that's needed to play, and both Brandy and Amy said they didn't have the desire to step it up.

"This has been a big lesson for me. With the increased workouts and the increased intensity, I guess I forgot about the mind-set. The [Sacramento State] match at Fresno was probably the last straw, but both girls told me it has been an ongoing process. They weren't excited to come to practice. They just didn't feel happy anymore."

Pimentel pretty much agreed with Connolly's assessment of the situation, although she was quick to say she couldn't speak for her close friend Smerko, who did not return calls Monday.

"It was really a combination of a lot of things," Pimentel said, "but there are two main reasons. First, I felt it was no longer fun. I was on full scholarship and I won't get that now, so it's obvious I won't play unless it's fun. Second, I didn't feel like my heart was in it, and it's not fair to your teammates to play half-heartedly."

Pimentel said her decision to quit had nothing to do with her relationship with Connolly, the increased workload in practice or the benching in Fresno.

"I really liked working harder and there's nothing between me and the team or me and Merja," she said. "And I certainly don't blame her for trying some different things to shake things up. Obviously, she saw some of that lack of heart."

It seems likely, however, that the years of losing--the Anteaters (1-10 this season) have won only 13 matches since Pimentel was a freshman--have taken an emotional toll.

"It wasn't so much that we lost, it was just that I didn't really care anymore if we won or lost," she said. "That sounds so strange coming out of my mouth because I'm one of the most competitive people I know. I've never quit anything in my life and I've always tried to give 100%. I've been doing that since sixth grade."

Pimentel, who played volleyball and basketball at Bret Harte High in Angels Camp, Calif., is a Big West Scholar Athlete who has a 3.74 grade-point average. She says she will stay in school and might consider trying out for the basketball team in 1997.

Pimentel didn't want to speak for Smerko, a graduate of Valencia High, and insisted their decisions were in no way linked. But she did admit they had "some of the same feelings, some of the same reasons."

"Really, though, I didn't talk to her about it much because I didn't want to influence her one way or the other," she said. "And I haven't been able to get ahold of her since."

Connolly, ever the optimist, is talking about recruiting--she does have two more scholarships to offer these days--the core of young players she hopes to build a winning program around and is doing her best to ignore the fact the Anteaters have not won a game in the previous five matches.

"We're fine," she said. "We have a new spirit, a whole new inspiration because we have 11 players who want to be in the gym. It's not as much about winning and losing as it is about playing with passion.

"I have to see all this as positive. I mean I couldn't have guessed that everyone wouldn't want to change along with program and, yes, Brandy and Amy are two of the more physically gifted athletes. But I've been around this game long enough to know that it's much more important to play as a team than it is to have physically gifted individuals."

Of course most of the teams in the Big West--one of the nation's best women's volleyball conferences and the league where the Anteaters face a steep uphill climb to respectability--have chemistry and talent.

*

Hello, hello: Juma Jackson, a 6-foot-4 freshman guard who averaged 19 points and nine rebounds at Page High in Greensboro, N.C. last season, is the latest addition to the men's basketball team, a squad already teeming with new faces.

Jackson is one of six newcomers on scholarship, joining Wendell Robinson, a 6-8 transfer from Santa Monica College, and four other freshmen--6-10 center Andrew Carlson (Poway High), 6-6 forward Brian Johnson (Bellflower St. John Bosco High), 6-5 guard Phil Negrete (Gardena High) and 6-2 guard Damion Pugh (Laguna Beach High).

The Anteater roster also includes two returning walk-ons, guards Juan Toscanini and Ken Simpson, and three new walk-on guards--Anthony De La Cruz (Carson High), Scott Phillips (Rio Americano High in Carmichael, Calif.) and Puneet Sahi (Bergen Catholic High in Bergenfield, N.J.).

Anteater Notes

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