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Volleyball Team Aiming at the Top

October 13, 1998|CHRIS FOSTER

It looked like kids playing against their older sisters Saturday night, and in some ways it was for the UC Irvine women's volleyball team.

The Anteaters took their annual beating from Long Beach State, the No. 1-ranked team in the nation. It followed a similar pasting at the hands of Pacific, another top-10 team.

For Irvine Coach Merja Connolly, it was a week of being outside looking in.

"No doubt about it, I would like to become a top-10 program as quick as I can get us there," said Connolly, whose team has already matched last season's conference victory total. The Anteaters are 6-14, 2-4 in the Big West Conference.

Connolly certainly knows what it takes. She was captain on UCLA's 1984 national championship team.

The situation seems to beg for such a program. Irvine is close to the beach. The program has 12 scholarships, the full allotment under NCAA rules. The Anteaters play in the Big West, one of the nation's top volleyball conferences.

Therein lies a hitch.

To be among the best, you not only have to play the best, you have to beat them from time to time. Long Beach, Pacific and UC Santa Barbara--the conference's ranked teams--haven't allowed that to happen.

Long Beach won its 26th consecutive match against Irvine. The Anteaters have lost 20 straight to Pacific. Santa Barbara has won 28 in a row.

"It's a goal to pull off the great upset this year," Connolly said.

Irvine Athletic Director Dan Guerrero leaves no doubt about what kind of program this should become.

"To make UCI one of the best volleyball schools in the country remains the driving force behind everything we do in that program," Guerrero said. "Getting to that point is a pretty monumental task."

The problem is twofold:

* Money. When Irvine offered eight full-ride scholarships in the 1980s, Coach Mike Puritz built a respectable program. The Anteaters even went to the NCAA tournament in 1988.

"They started giving us eight in 1986 and it showed two years later," said Puritz, now an associate director for campus recreation at Irvine. "Then they went from eight to six and it was the wrong direction."

* Reputation. It's an easy decision for a prep volleyball player to go to Long Beach, play in a large arena in front of large crowds and have success guaranteed. Coming to Irvine, which plays in Crawford Hall before a cozy group of friends, takes a commitment.

"The problem with getting blue-chip players is they want to go to the blue-chip schools," said Craig Pazanti, co-director of the Asic Nova Volleyball Club. "You have to over-achieve one season and use it.

"If you can come across a special recruiting class, one that is willing to step into a situation where they will not be good right away and build a program . . . "

Connolly has attracted only one Volleyball Magazine Fab 50 player, Tandie Wade. Long Beach State has five Orange County players on its roster, including 1997 national player of the year Misty May (Newport Harbor High).

"I compare it to our women's soccer program," Guerrero said. "It took [Coach] Marine Cano several years to land a recruit like Stephanie Rigamat. Now that he has had some success, he is getting visits from student athletes who wouldn't have given UCI a sniff before."

The aroma changes slowly, though, with women's volleyball. Connolly's goals include fewer three-and-out losses this season. The Anteaters were swept 14 times last season. They have been swept 12 times this season.

But one upset would certainly clear the air.

"I'm learning that it takes time," Connolly said. "We're not shooting up the ladder in the Big West as quickly as I would like, but the season is just beginning and we've tied last year's win total."


Pat Douglass' second season as the Anteater men's basketball coach begins Friday with a midnight practice in the Bren Center.

But there is a different air around this team already.

Marek Ondera, one of six new players, was poked in the eye by teammate Ben Jones during a pick-up game last week. It left him with a black eye bad enough that the photographer taking mug shots for the media guide wanted to pose him to hide it.

Ondera, a 6-foot-6 forward, would have none of that. He wanted to look tough.

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