The public address announcer at St. John Arena boomed out the names of the happy members of the NCAA-champion men's volleyball team last Saturday night, but the players on UCLA did not pay attention. This was because, shock of shocks, they were not happy members of the NCAA-champion men's volleyball team.
The Bruins sat in a tableau of discomfort as the awards ceremony took place in front of them. Four starters had towels over their heads, faces hidden. Paul Nihipali, the one senior starter, the All-America, stared straight ahead, looking at something only he could see, maybe a thousand miles away. Sophomore Danny Farmer, who's also a wide receiver on the football team, lay on his back, staring at the ceiling.
"And will the captains from Stanford step forward to accept the trophy...." the P.A. announcer boomed.
Stanford. This did not seem right to the Bruins. Sure, maybe the Cardinal should have been favored; Stanford's team was filled with seniors and talent, built to climb this particular hill. Sure, the young UCLA team had lost in three games to the Cardinal only a week ago at home in Pauley Pavilion. So what? This was the NCAA final. The Bruins always win the NCAA final.
"What should I have done differently?" wondered UCLA coach Al Scates, whose teams had won the last two titles, three of the last four and 16 of the 27 in NCAA history. "If I'd had 'em set up the quick hitter a couple of times, we would have won that fifth game. I didn't want to preordain the action, wanted to let it flow, but I should have set up the quick hitter. I should have done it."
The Bruins lost the first two games and then climbed back to win the next two to send the match into the rapid-fire final game, in which a point is scored on anybody's serve. Final Jeopardy. UCLA had won four of these final games in a row in its 24-4 season, most recently in its semifinal victory over Penn State last Thursday night in this same building on the Ohio State campus.
The score was 13-13 now; 15 points were needed to win. Nihipali was serving. The Bruins' strategy in this match was to serve the ball low and to the right of Stanford's Matt Fuerbringer, to keep it away from All-America outside hitter and 1996 Olympian Mike Lambert. Nihipali served, low and away. Too low. Into the net. The Cardinal, now ahead 14-13, served. On the return UCLA setter Brandon Taliaferro pumped the ball high into the air for a kill by Nihipali. Fuerbringer and Mike Hoefer, expecting the play, met the attempted kill at the net and sent the ball back faster than it arrived. End of set, match, UCLA. Stanford was the men's NCAA champion for the first time.
"It would have been easy for us to go in the lank after losing those first two sets, but we didn't," said Scates, who with a win would have broken his tie with former Houston golf coach Dave Williams for the most NCAA championships won by a coach in a single sport. (Both have 16.) "I was really proud of that. In the end, though, it's a bitter pill to swallow. I guess we can't win all the time."
The Cardinal players whooped and posed for pictures, some wearing Hawaiian garlands provided by Lambert's mother. The Bruins slowly, slowly started to gather themselves to head back to their rooms at the Holiday Inn. Scates wore a lucky green suit that he had worn for the last two NCAA titles. He said he would never wear it again.
"What happened on those final two points?" a reporter asked Nihipali.