As she trotted off the court after leading Long Beach State to the NCAA women's volleyball title last Saturday, senior setter Misty May kept her eyes straight ahead and locked on the shiny new championship trophy that she held in her hands. Had she stopped for a moment and looked into the stands at Wisconsin's Kohl Center, May would have espied something even more spectacular. All around the arena, from tiny girls dressed in Green Bay Packers jackets to teenagers in tie-dyed T-shirts to grandmothers in thick wool sweaters, everyone seemed to have her hair up in pigtails, just like May's.
Originally, May's trademark 'do was nothing more than a way to keep her hair out of her eyes during matches, but over the last two seasons, as May developed into perhaps the best setter in the history of women's college volleyball, May's pigtails, like her hair-raising skills, seemed to transcend the game. Dual plaits are now all the rage in Long Beach, where it isn't unusual to see hundreds of kids wearing pigtails at 49ers' home games.
"The biggest compliment a player can have is when kids want to be like them," says Long Beach State assistant coach Debbie Green, a two-time Olympian and Hall of Fame setter. "Misty has taken setting to a new level. She does it all, and she puts on a show. She's entertaining. There isn't anyone who comes close to her level of play."
In volleyball, setters run the show much as a point guard does in basketball. But to understand May's court presence you have to imagine a point guard who also leads her team in scoring, blocks and rebounds, and who has a quirky sense of humor to boot. In Saturday's title match May, the volleyball coaches' player of the year this season and last, had 70 assists, 11 digs and nine kills while setting an NCAA tournament record with 20 service aces as she led Long Beach State to a 3-2 win over Penn State. The true measure of her dominance came during the final game, in which the 49ers trailed 7-2. May had either an assist or a kill on all but three of Long Beach State's 15 points. That allowed the 49ers (36-0) to become the first NCAA women's volleyball team to finish the season undefeated.
"Misty is the Magic Johnson or Wayne Gretzky of volleyball," says Long Beach State coach Brian Gimmillaro, who has now won three NCAA titles since 1989. "She does everything, and she does it with more creativity and imagination than anyone who came before her. She is the center and the future of this sport. And that's good. What volleyball needs right now is a hero."
Indeed, just six years after winning the bronze medal at the Barcelona Olympics, the American women's team is in jeopardy of not qualifying for the 2000 Games after failing to get out of first-round pool play at this year's world championships. The NCAA Final Four was a shot in the arm that the U.S. desperately needed. A record crowd of 13,194 watched a classic five-game final featuring two undefeated teams with dramatically different styles and a palpable dislike for one another.
Using an up-tempo approach, the 49ers throttled the more methodical Nittany Lions 15-3, 15-10 in the first two games. Penn State battled back to a 2-2 tie behind the play of junior middle hitter Lauren Cacciamani, ho had 33 kills in the final and earned Final Four co-MVP honors with May. (As for the teams' divergent styles, between points Cacciamani whispered prayers to herself while the 49ers used the time to trash-talk through the net.)
But as Penn State tired and it became clear that the Nittany Lions could not stop Long Beach State's lefthanded jack-hammer, Veronica Walls (19 kills), May waited for her opening and then took over the match. "That's what volleyball is supposed to be, a nonstop dogfight," she said afterward. "Some teams fold, but if you love the sport, then you love those situations. It's not more pressure. It's more fun."
Whether it's a five-point deficit in the final game of the championship match or the future of an entire sport, pressure doesn't seem to bother May, a 5'9" free spirit from Costa Mesa, Calif., who grew up playing volleyball on the beach alongside her father, Butch, a member of the 1968 Olympic volleyball team. After last Saturday's final, in a room off the lobby of the Kohl Center, May opened her comments to the 49ers' boosters by saying, "When I got drug-tested on Thursday, I couldn't go, but boy do I have to go now!"
The room, which overlooked the court, was filled with players and their families, coaches, school administrators and a number of teenage fans, some in pigtails and others holding signs that read WE LOVE MISTY. Everyone wanted to hold on to the moment for as long as possible, so pizza was brought in and the floor was opened for comments about the 49ers' magical season. One fan joked that the five-game final was just the team's way of keeping things interesting. It was also pointed out that the only team the 49ers lost to all year was the Long Beach State B squad. Gimmillaro then stepped forward and shared with the crowd what he had said to the team in the locker room following the match. "I told the players that this is the greatest team of all time," he said. "From now on every team that follows will be compared with this team."