SI Vault
Jerry Kirshenbaum
May 20, 1974
Like their basketball brothers of yore, the volleyball Bruins seem to be taking permanent possession of the NCAA title, and what does it matter if the teams they beat are friends and neighbors
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May 20, 1974

Leapin' Lizards, It's Ucla Again

Like their basketball brothers of yore, the volleyball Bruins seem to be taking permanent possession of the NCAA title, and what does it matter if the teams they beat are friends and neighbors

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The question is as unavoidable as the mouthful of leather even the best volleyball players are sometimes forced to eat: Why hasn't this crowd-pleasing sport, with its blistering 100-mph spikes, caught on elsewhere? The entertainment value certainly was high enough last Saturday night when the UCLA Bruins, playing in their opponents' sweltering, clamorous gym, outlasted the University of California at Santa Barbara for their fourth NCAA championship in the tournament's five-year history. But UCLA's domination remained only part of a larger imbalance; never has a non-California team even made it to the finals.

If nothing else, the California orientation lent a coziness to the best-of-five showdown, in which the Bruins came from behind to win 10-15, 15-8, 10-15, 15-11 and 15-12. Hailing as they do from different campuses of the same far-flung university system, both UCLA and UCSB were clad in gold and blue. There were players on each team in beads and headbands, suggesting that they were from the same tribe, and their free-flowing hair was testament to the fact that they all stayed away from the same barbers. Everybody seemed to have close friends across the net, a case in point being the rival captains, UCLA's Bob Leonard and UCSB's David DeGroot, who were high school teammates in volleyball-mad Pacific Palisades.

Whether or not fraternal bonds were the reason, it sometimes seemed that neither team was ever going to win, so grudgingly did the points come. Bigger and more powerful than the Bruins, UCSB received strong blocking from Jon Roberts, a 6'5" stone wall who time and again went high to send Bruin spikes ricocheting back across the net. But UCLA wound up denting the UCSB defenses, both with the fierce smashes of high-leaping Mike Normand and the more measured but equally damaging spikes of Leonard, whose all-round floor play earned him the MVP award.

If only because it was unexpected, the title was probably the sweetest of the long string of successes chalked up by 34-year-old Al Scates, whose record already invites comparison with that of fellow Uclan John Wooden. Although volleyball became an NCAA sport only in 1970, Scates-coached UCLA clubs were terrorizing competition as far back as 1964, and he has further made his mark as author of Winning Volleyball, an instructional that has sold 15,000 copies at $8.95. For all that, there were fears that Scates' dynasty was about to suffer the same fate as Wooden's. After winning the first three NCAA championships, UCLA failed to qualify for last year's tournament—San Diego State won the title—and this season it finished third behind UCSB and Southern Cal in the rugged 18-team Southern California Intercollegiate Volleyball Association.

UCLA made it to the NCAA tournament by upsetting Southern Cal in district playoffs and it was the underdog against UCSB, which defeated the Bruins in four of seven matches during the regular season and harbors dynastic ambitions of its own. As if collegiate volleyball were not chummy enough, the Gauchos are coached by Rudy Suwara, who was Scates' assistant at UCLA before taking the Santa Barbara job in 1971. An ex-Olympian and still one of the top U.S. players, the 32-year-old Suwara bravely rejects any suggestion that he is Scates' coaching prodigy. "Al taught me a lot at UCLA," he says, "but I think I taught him some things, too."

It was Scates who recommended Suwara for the Santa Barbara position and the Bruin coach, noting that he has since lost a couple of top prospects to his ex-assistant, says, "I unleashed a demon up there. He's making my life miserable."

Suwara's success has been but one factor in Santa Barbara's growth as a volleyball hotbed. Courts have sprung up everywhere—on lawns, along beaches and in vacant lots—and often dozens of games are in progress on the UCSB campus. Suwara's varsity outdraws basketball among students and also helps fill the void created two years ago when the Gauchos scrapped their football team, which was losing both money and games at an alarming rate. A by-product of volleyball's popularity are the groupies who have attached themselves to the team. "You wouldn't believe the requests we get for pictures of the players," says UCSB sport publicity boss Don Weiner. "A new group of girls every day."

The picture elsewhere in the U.S. remains dark, though far from hopeless. One bullish sign is that the two non-California entrants at the NCAA, Ball State University of Muncie, Ind. and Springfield (Mass.) College, both arrived in Santa Barbara with big ideas. Springfield Coach Tom Hay insisted that his team had a chance at least to reach the finals, adding jauntily, "It's California against the rest of the country." Ball State's Don Shondell had more realistic hopes. Ball State was the only team to have competed in all five NCAA championships, and although the California stranglehold had prevented the Hoosiers from finishing higher than third, Shondell predicted that his boys would beat UCLA in Friday's semifinal round.

But State's frustration continued as UCLA won 15-10, 15-9, 15-9. Then UCSB clobbered Springfield 15-7, 15-3, 15-10. If Hay and Shondell were truly surprised, they were alone. Before the tourney began, Scates gave his players mimeographed schedules listing UCLA-UCSB for the finals, while in practice Suwara outfitted his reserves in uniforms bearing UCLA's numbers.

The Gaucho coach had cause to be most concerned about No. 32, which is worn by Mike Normand. A 25-year-old Vietnam veteran, the mustachioed Normand is only 5'11", but his jumping ability—and confidence—are such that he unblushingly compares himself to David Thompson of basketball fame. "They say Thompson jumps," he says. "Well, I sky." Suwara respected Normand's high-flying ways enough to assign the bigger Roberts, UCSB's best blocker, to stop him, a strategy that worked well enough in the Gaucho's opening-game win Saturday night. As Santa Barbara's knowledgeable fans howled with delight, Roberts proved so imposing at the net that Normand, vainly trying to get the ball past him, repeatedly sent it hurtling far out of bounds.

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