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CAMPUS REPORT

Turn-Around Time

In 3 Seasons, UC Irvine's Volleyball Program Has Gained Opponents' Respect

April 22, 1999|PETER YOON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Memories of the dark days still surface once in a while for Donnie Rafter and Mike Rupp, but gradually those nightmares have been replaced by the glow of the successful new era of UC Irvine volleyball.

A three-year metamorphosis, sparked by the hiring of Orange County volleyball guru Charlie Brande as coach in 1997 and the subsequent development of Rafter and Rupp into top-level players, has transformed the Anteaters from conference doormat to competitive contender.

Irvine (14-10) qualified for the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation playoffs this year for the first time since the men's volleyball program began in 1988. The No. 10-ranked Anteaters visit No. 2 Long Beach State in the first round at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at The Pyramid.

This is the first winning season for the Anteaters, who had a previous season-high of nine victories last year, and their 11 conference victories is six more than they have ever had.

Such success has enabled Rafter and Rupp to walk across campus with their heads held high and chests puffed, even when they're wearing a UCI volleyball cap and T-shirt. They no longer have to feel ashamed about their affiliation with the Anteater program. And, as the only players left from the pre-Brande days, they are understandably proud.

"It's pretty cool," said Rafter, who leads the team with 520 kills and 215 digs. "The old UCI, you would have guys halfway through the season all of a sudden come down with injuries to get out of playing.

"Guys were counting games until the season was over, counting the minutes until practice was over. This year, we're trying to draw it out as long as possible."

Rupp, second on the team with 434 kills, brags about soaking three shirts with sweat during a recent practice.

"Guys are working hard this year," he said. "That didn't happen three years ago. It's really hard to come in and work like this when you're in a losing season."

Improvement has come in a series of small steps for the Irvine program.

In Brande's first season, Rupp and Rafter were sophomores and the Anteaters extended USC to five games before losing. It was the first indication they might be able to compete in the MPSF, the nation's toughest volleyball conference.

"It was eye-opening," Rupp said. "We were like, 'We can actually do this.' "

A victory over USC the following year was the next small step, and then came two leaps this year.

The Anteaters beat perennial power UCLA at Pauley Pavilion and knocked off Long Beach State, ranked No. 1 in the nation at the time, in a 15-11, 15-9, 15-6 rout.

Fans, once a scarce commodity for home matches, began to take notice. Irvine backers packed Crawford Hall for the playoff-berth clincher against Stanford last weekend. Students have come up to players on campus wishing them luck.

"I even saw a guy wearing an Irvine volleyball T-shirt," Rupp said.

Rupp and Rafter have played a vital role in the Anteaters' success. One of them led the Anteaters in kills in 21 of their 24 matches. Rafter has been named MPSF player of the week twice. Rupp earned the honor once.

Rupp served an ace on a jump serve for the winning point against UCLA. Rafter did the same on match point against Long Beach State.

"Our goal this season was to get better and earn some respect for the program," Brande said. "Mike and Donnie were instrumental in that. I'm so happy for guys like that who went 4-18 or whatever it was three years ago and can leave here with a respectable program."

Brande, who has guided club teams to 35 national championships and won Southern Section and state championships at the high school level, says he will always hold a place in his heart for Rafter and Rupp for helping turn the program around.

"Those guys have started every game I have ever coached here," Brande said. "I attribute a great deal of the success to their hard work. Their work ethic has picked up the team."

Especially Rupp's. Rafter came from a top-notch high school program at Tustin, where he won a Southern Section title. And though Rupp won City Section Championships in 1994 and '95 while at University High in West L.A., he admits his work ethic left a little to be desired.

When Brande called him on it, Rupp said he almost quit the team.

"Sophomore year was rough," Rupp said. "Charlie doesn't accept failure and doesn't accept people who won't work hard. There were days when I'd come in and not be mentally prepared for it, and it was tough to put up with."

After a few heart-to-heart sessions with Brande, Rupp said he finally bought into the new system and made the commitment to work. Now, according to Brande, he's the hardest worker on the team.

"When I first came here he was a skinny little scrawny guy," Brande said. "Now I might use him as my bodyguard."

Last year, Irvine got into position to make the playoffs, needing to win only two of its last seven matches to clinch a spot. The Anteaters lost all seven

But this year, the Anteaters are getting the breaks. Take the UCLA match, for example.

Leading 14-13, Rupp went back to serve. He had been serving with the traditional overhand style, but during a UCLA timeout designed to freeze Rupp, Brande called for a jump serve.

Rupp went for it but made a bad toss.

"Once I tossed it, I was just hoping I could get it in," Rupp said.

He did, and the ball fell for an ace, giving the Anteaters their biggest victory, to that point, in school history.

Those are the types of things that happen for the new Irvine.

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