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Underdog Matadors Hoping to Avoid KO

After program was cut, then reinstated, transfers in and out leave team with new look.

January 04, 1998|MIKE BRESNAHAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NORTHRIDGE — Chad Strickland, fatigued after practice and looking like he just fought a heavyweight bout, invokes a volleyball analogy that involves, not surprisingly, Rocky Balboa.

The comparison refers to the Cal State Northridge men's volleyball team and is accurate and powerful, like a Strickland kill down the line.

The program was left for dead in June when it was cut with three other sports for gender-equity and budget reasons. It was later resurrected, and, with the season opener coming Wednesday against Quincy University, has a completely new look.

Four seniors graduated, four players transferred out, six players transferred in, a new coach has been hired and nobody knows what could happen next.

"I'd compare us to Rocky," said Strickland, a 6-foot-1 outside hitter and two-time All-American.

"We're underdogs and every team thinks they're going to bury us. We're going to get our butts kicked right and left, but I still think we're going to come out on top."

If they do, they will have recorded record-setting developments in team chemistry.

With so many new faces and new Coach Jeff Campbell, who was promoted after seven years as an assistant, there will be some major adjustments.

Not helping matters is the Matadors' competition in the rugged Mountain Pacific Sports Federation, which features the top five ranked teams in the nation.

"It's pretty wild," said Campbell, who took over after John Price left to coach the women's team at Cal State Bakersfield.

"Some experience is low, but we're helping each other out."

Middle blocker is a particular concern, with only three on the roster.

David Money, a 6-8 sophomore, started strong last season but faded. He is being bothered by a right shoulder injury, leaving transfers Brian Hughlett, a 6-8 junior from Long Beach City College, and Adam Black, a 6-7 sophomore from La Verne, as the likely starters against Quincy.

Strickland, a senior, is plenty capable at one outside hitting spot, where he is trying to become only the second three-time All-American at Northridge, joining Coley Kyman.

The other outside spot will be filled by either Mark Lee, a 6-4 junior transfer from Pierce College by way of Hart High, or Craig Donen, a 6-4 junior from Canada.

Former Channel Islands High setter Junior Mosones, a 6-2 sophomore, will start at opposite hitter, though he is being pressed by Villanova transfer Tim Nelson, a 6-3 sophomore who played at Alemany High.

At setter, 6-3 freshman John Baxter, The Times' 1997 regional player of the year at Royal High, is expected to head off a challenge from Golden West College transfer Greg Logan, a 6-1 junior.

Campbell liked what he saw during two-a-day practices and, at the very least, feels confident there won't be a repeat of last year, where the Matadors faltered in a late-season run for the playoffs.

Despite above-average talent, they lost three of their last four matches and finished 14-13, 8-11 in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation.

"I think right now our guys are playing for more," Campbell said. "There's no agendas, whereas teams in the past have had agendas. [Now] they're playing for the program."

Strickland almost left Northridge after the sports cuts were announced, entertaining offers from heavy-hitters Stanford, Hawaii and UC Santa Barbara.

A few degree credits shy of his diploma, Strickland chose to stay.

Many players chose to leave. Dan Fisher is now the starting setter at University of the Pacific. Sean Callahan is at Long Beach State, Mike Szymanski and Josh Sanders are at San Diego State.

Also gone are seniors Collin Smith, Eric Klootwyk, Jason Hughes and Dan Nash.

"It's shocking," Strickland said. "I'm used to seeing Collin and Ed [Bond] and Klooty. We don't have any room to loaf, and I don't think we will this year."

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