Al Scates, coach of the UCLA men's volleyball team, strolled across campus last Wednesday wearing his customary Cheshire-cat grin while talking with assistant coach Harlan Cohen. The subject was the final match of the NCAA tournament. The question was whether the Bruins could sweep it in three games. Sure, said Cohen. Scates guessed it would take four but said he would be shocked if it took the full five. Confident? That would be an understatement. The Bruins were still two days away from the tournament semifinals.
Earlier that day, senior swing hitter Jeff Williams had discussed the possibility of meeting crosstown rival USC in the final. "I hate those guys," he said. "It doesn't matter how serious they get, we are so much better than they are."
Impudence has long been UCLA's calling card. "The '84 team was the cockiest I've seen," says Ozzie Volstad, this season's captain. "We didn't even warm up before matches. Maybe 20 minutes before a match we'd start jogging a little." That was also the year that setter Wally Martin, while playing in UCLA's victory over Pepperdine in the NCAA championship match, dug a spike off his body and then, as he watched the ball soar high in the air, raised a hand to suppress a yawn.
As 8,952 fans in Pauley Pavilion can attest, cockiness and winning were still the Bruin trademarks Saturday night. Just as Cohen had predicted, the big-talking Bruins swept USC 15-11, 15-2, 16-14 for their 12th NCAA title in 25 years under Scates.
UCLA's three seniors, Volstad, Williams and Arne Lamberg, proved that the Bruin bite is every bit the equal of its bark. Lamberg and Williams made the all-tourney team, and Volstad was MVP, leading the Bruins with 23 kills and a remarkable .526 hitting average in the final (.300 is considered good, .400 excellent). When Games 1 and 3 got sticky toward the end, the Bruin sets went to Volstad. A Scandinavian import with a Bjorn Borg exterior, the player known as the Ice Man leaves the college game as he found it—with a national title.
This year's final four pairings resembled New Year's Day bowl matchups, with UCLA versus Ohio State and USC versus Penn State. As expected, the Bruins had no trouble with the Buckeyes, winning 15-7, 15-10, 15-11.
Penn State, on the other hand, arrived with a 26-3 record and the monstrous 6'10", 230-pound Chris Chase, the most fearsome front-row hitter in the country. The Nittany Lions had what many considered the best team ever to come out of the East.
The way Penn State coach Tom Tait looked at it, a Nittany Lion victory would be good for the sport. "It would be a major step toward the maturing of men's college volleyball," Tait said. "The perception [of the game] would change, and people would recognize that this is not just a California sport." The Trojans dashed Tait's hopes when they rallied behind the quick hitting of sophomore Tom Duke to beat the Lions 15-12, 9-15, 5-15, 15-12, 15-9.
With Penn State gone, it was left, paradoxically, to the Bruins to prove that volleyball is more than just a California game. UCLA displayed some flashy imports, including Matt Sonnichsen, a 6'5" sophomore setter from Spring, Texas. Sonnichsen played on a club team with his father because his home state doesn't offer high school volleyball.
Another non-Californian is Volstad, the most formidable Norwegian import to hit L.A. since Sonja Henie. Like Sonnichsen, Volstad had no high school volleyball in his hometown of Forde, a village of about 8,000 on the west coast of Norway. But he starred on local club teams and, by age 17, on the Norwegian national squad.