Thursday, December 02, 1999

UC volleyball ends drought in NCAAs


Alford lands 'Cats in tourney for 1st time since 1981

BY SCOTT MacGREGOR
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Three years ago, Laura Alford inherited a University of Cincinnati volleyball program in turmoil. The Bearcats were coming off two 20-win seasons, but just four players remained in the wake of a personality conflict with coach Mike Lingenfelter.

        Three years later, the Bearcats (28-6) have risen to their first NCAA Tournament appearance in 18 years. They will take on Santa Clara (20-10) in tonight's first-round match in Palo Alto, Calif.

        “You feel pride,” Alford said. “We really feel like this is our group. They're really buying into what we have to say, and they really care about the future of the program. It's not just about this year.”

        This has been a special year for the Bearcats, who clinched their first NCAA berth since 1981 — the longest stretch between tournament appearances in NCAA history — by winning the Conference USA Tournament over Louisville last week. Junior Stephanie Meinig, Alford's first recruit, was named tournament MVP and first-team all-conference.

        “We knew we could be good,” Meinig said, “but I don't think we knew how good we could be.”

        The Bearcats' confidence hinged on an opening loss to a less talented Xavier squad. The defeat, Meinig said, actually gave UC more belief.

        “We realized we should have beaten them,” Meinig said. “Then we started to annihilate teams along the way. That built up our confidence, knowing that whatever someone was going to put up, we were going to knock it down.”

        That confidence could be key in the Bearcats' near future. Perennial power Stanford, seeking its fifth national title this decade and the winner of 91 of its last 92 home matches in Palo Alto, probably will be UC's second-round opponent if the Bearcats beat Santa Clara.

        But UC's season goal was just to make it this far. The rest is the reward — but no less serious. Meinig described watching the tournament selection show Sunday as “a mixture of excitement and contentment.”

        “We'll keep resetting our goals, refocusing,” Meinig said. “Once we made it to the NCAAs, we weren't going to kick back and say, "Hey, let's go for a little vacation.'”

        Meinig was the conference tournament MVP, but Alford said the Bearcats are so balanced, there's no one MVP of the team. Instead, they have a group of role players and good stories.

        • Senior Annie Gant, who transfered from Texas Christian two years ago, was Conference USA setter of the year and is third in UC history with 2,998 assists.

        • Senior Katie Graham, the only player remaining from before Alford's hiring, will establish a new school record for matches played (137) tonight vs. Santa Clara. The C-USA defensive specialist of the year hasn't missed a match in her four-year career.

        • Freshman sensations Bonita Wise and Trish Ladusaw have emerged as major contributors, and both stamped their names in the Bearcats record book this season, Wise for a 30-kill match (the sixth UC player to do so) and Ladusaw for a 32-dig match (third-best in school history). Wise was C-USA co-rookie of the year.

        How different is the UC program now than when Alford arrived? The Bearcats have better talent and a stronger schedule. UC had won 27 and 25 games against a weaker schedule the two seasons before Alford arrived.

        Much of the difference, said former Bearcats star and now student assistant coach Becky Tenkman, is attitude. Some of the changes seem minor; when Tenkman was a freshman in 1994, UC flew to only two matches a year. It now flies on every long road trip.

        Other changes haven't been so subtle, such as Alford's insistence on getting the best talent and on getting her players to buy into her team-first system. From the start, she refused to recruit less talented players just to fill the roster.

        “You could see it building. I've seen huge changes from year to year,” Tenkman said. “From the get-go, (Alford) came in said it's her way or the highway. That's what it takes to build a program. Since then, she's brought in the players she wants, and she's surrounded herself with good people.”

        Former UCLA star Reed Sunahara, who played with Olympian Karch Kiraly, is an assistant coach.

        UC won 21 games each of Alford's first two seasons. But the difference this year, Tenkman said, is that these Bearcats believe in Alford's team concept to an extent their predecessors didn't. Stats are sacrificed for wins.

        “This team has really good chemistry,” Tenkman said. “They're always doing stuff together. Teams in the past weren't really like that. I think that's why they've been so successful.”

       



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