This weekend the top women's volleyball teams will face off in the round of 16. For this week's archival article, we went back to 1998, the last time a team who is not still competing in this year's tournament won the title. That team, of course, was Long Beach State, led by senior setter Misty May.
If becoming the first undefeated team in 21 years wasn’t motivation enough, Long Beach State had a little extra incentive inside Jessica Alvarado’s gym bag. It wasn’t much. Just an old, battered USA Today clipping that she stashed in with her volleyball gear.
In the article, Penn State players were quoted as saying 1998 was their year, and when Alvarado and her Long Beach State teammates read it, they did a slow burn.
“That stuff I find offensive,” Alvarado said. “Because at that point in time, they were ranked No. 2 and we were ranked No. 1.”
Using that as the ultimate proof that they hadn’t gotten their due, Long Beach State set things straight on Dec. 19 in chilly Madison, Wis., defeating Penn State 15-3, 15-10, 13-15, 14-16, 15-12 in a blockbuster championship match witnessed by a record crowd of 13,194 at the Kohl Center. That froze their record for the history books at 36-0, making them the first unbeaten team in NCAA history. (The 1977 USC Trojans were the last team to do it, but that was before the NCAA Tournament format when the women fell under the AIAW umbrella.)
“I think in our hearts we always knew we were No. 1,” said setter Misty May. “I told the team before the match, ‘Nobody believes we’re No. 1, and we need to show them.’”
For May and the other senior starters – middles Alvarado and Benishe Dillard – achieving the ultimate championship capped a long, four-year process that had been full of near misses. In 1995, when all three were freshmen, the 49ers lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament. The following year, they lost in the regional final and, last year, after being seeded second when they thought their rightful seeding should have been first, they lost to eventual champion Stanford in the semifinals at the final four.
“It was our year,” said Alvarado. “It was our time.”
Looking at the individual players on this team, it wasn’t hard to detect an undercurrent of determination that made one thing clear: anything less than a championship wouldn’t be enough. Take Veronica Walls, for instance. Last summer, on June 19, she gave birth to a daughter: Jamieson Lee. Two months later, she was training with her teammates, preparing for the season.
“After I had my baby, I was so tired,” she said. “The easiest thing would have been for me to just stay home and take care of my baby . . . But I told my teammates, ‘I’ll be back. I promise I won’t let you down.’”
After experiencing the birth process, winning a national championship didn’t seem like such a far-reaching goal. “Once you’ve been through labor, you feel like you can do anything,” said Walls with a smile.
The 49ers lost only six games before the final four. Penn State was equally impressive, losing three.
To get to the championship match, Long Beach mowed down Florida in three in the semis, and Penn State went four with rugged Nebraska, which finished 32-2. Because Penn State was also undefeated entering the final, there was speculation that this was the first time in history two teams with spotless records would play for an NCAA title. That didn’t prove true – apparently it happened before in tennis – but it added to the electricity of the event.
When Long Beach won the first two games, then took an early lead in game three, it looked like the title bout might turn into a blowout. But then Penn State climbed back to win game three, then erased a 12-6 deficit to take the fourth game, and jumped out to an 8–4 lead in game five.
In the end, the simple reality was that Long Beach had too much gun for a Penn State team that relied heavily on middle blocker Lauren Cacciamani. While Cacciamani was hitting .377 for a match-high 33 kills, four other Nittany Lion hitters didn’t produce. Middle Emily Stout (-.308) and opposite Lindsay Anderson (-.069) were in negative territory, and outside hitters Carrie Schonveld (.094) and Christy Cochran (.182) also struggled.
Whenever Cacciamani was in the front row with two hitters, she was virtually unstoppable, and her back row hitting was just as potent. But Stout wasn’t an offensive threat in the front row, and Long Beach was able to exploit the blocking of Penn State setter Bonnie Bremner, who is only 5'9".
Long Beach’s final numbers were impressive and balanced, good evidence to support the thinking that no team in history has ever charged at opponents from so many different angles. Walls had a career night, leading the 49ers with 19 kills and hitting .455. So strong was her play, that the coaches urged May to keep setting her, even when she faced two blockers. Speaking to Long Beach boosters after the match, Gimmillaro joked: “We teach Veronica all kinds of technical things, and once in a while she just says, ‘Aw, forget it. I’ll just jump a little higher.’”
Other key contributors were outside hitter Anja Grabovac, who had a match-high 25 digs and hit .344, often picking up kills at crucial times. Alvarado added 17 kills for a .324 percentage, and Dillard gave the Nittany Lions trouble with her back slide, a one-legged set she had never been particularly fond of but one that she worked hard to perfect.
Collectively, it all added up to a dizzying offensive show: fast, powerful, and aggressive. “We’ve got such diverse people,” explained Alvarado. “They can hit quick, they can hit high balls. Everybody on our team can hit a multiple number of sets at multiple heights and multiple speeds.”
Even so, Penn State gave Long Beach all it could handle and had a very real chance to come away with the championship. As Gimmillaro noted, they just kept hanging on and hanging on.
“We had more digs, more blocks, a 150 point higher hitting percentage, more kills and we almost didn’t win,” he said.
The 49ers concentrated on shutting down Penn State’s outside hitters, leaving Cacciamani with room to work. But in the fifth game, down 8–4 and looking to be in severe trouble, Long Beach changed things up, pulling in the left-side hitter to double block Cacciamani. That helped them make it even at 8–8, and soon after they pulled away.
Analyzing the match afterward, Rose put things in simple terms, saying: “I don’t think we blocked very well in positions where we normally block well, and we made an incredible number of hitting errors. Other than Lauren, I don’t think anybody played well. So if your players don’t play real well, then you’re not going to have great success.”
If Long Beach got its edge from a newspaper clipping, Penn State had some of its own bulletin board material. A day before the match, Long Beach middle blocker Brandy Barratt fired off a salvo or two about non-West Coast volleyball, claiming that Penn State’s road to the final had been a “cakewalk.” Told of these comments a few minutes later, Rose said there was no reason to respond, then added: “BYU and Nebraska are very good. If their players don’t feel that those teams are very good, then that’s very disappointing for college athletes to be thinking along those lines.”
Explaining Barratt’s comments, Gimmillaro said he thought they stemmed from a year of frustration after Long Beach didn’t get the top seeding in 1997. “Brandy is very young,” he said. “She’s got an incredible sense of enthusiasm. She just wants to fight.”
Of course, it didn’t endear her to the Penn State loyalists, who made an overwhelming majority at the Kohl Center and shouted comments like, “Here’s Miss Cakewalk,” and, “Hey, fortywhiners.”
But if it was distracting, it wasn’t apparent. Long Beach players went at each game with a business-like attitude, and May worked her usual wizardry, holding the block with her jump setting, taking glimpses to see where the opponent was positioned and pounding an occasional kill. She also did the little things, like shooting a ball directly at Bremner on a broken play in the fourth game of the championship match so Bremner couldn’t set.
“Her court sense is something you can’t teach,” Alvarado said. “I swear she has eyes in the back of her head.”
That, and two Player of the Year awards, which she uses as ammunition when chiding Debbie Green, a Long Beach assisting coach who was the starting setter for the undefeated 1977 USC team. “She’ll say, ‘They say that you’re the best setter the U.S. has ever had, but that’s not for long,’” said Green with a laugh.
Said May: “She’s the best, and I’m just happy I got to learn from the best.”
Green was glad to share her 21-year-old record with her players, and she told them that earlier in the season.
“It’s nice to be a part of history on both ends,” she said.
So far, history for Rose hasn’t included the sport’s biggest prize. This was his fourth trip to the final four and third championship match without a victory, but he kept it in perspective when sharing his feelings with the media.
“You just have to grasp the opportunity for what it is,” he said. “It’s a chance to compete and see how you do on that day. I’m not sure that it’s anything other than that. I would hate to think that [my players] would look at this as, ‘My god, we failed.’ There were only two teams playing in college volleyball today, and we were one of those teams. I would hope they would celebrate going 20-0 in the Big Ten and 35-1.”
Having won in 1989 and ’93, Gimmillaro now has three titles which ties him for second with UCLA’s Any Banachowski and puts him one behind Stanford’s Don Shaw. Reflecting afterward, Gimmillaro talked about the pure joy of winning, and the great desire you have to experience it again once you’ve done it before.
“You don’t know if you’re ever going to get that feeling again,” he said. “It’s much more intense the third time around.”
As May walked out of a near-empty arena, she said this championship was all she wanted for Christmas. She was asked how she planned to celebrate.
“I’m not going to forget it, that’s all.”
Chances are, nobody will.
1998 Tournament Notebook
Gimmillaro caps perfect season
Every coach in the nation starts the season with an unblemished record. Only one can end it that way.
And in 1998, Long Beach State’s Brian Gimmillaro became the first women’s coach in NCAA history to guide his team to a perfect season.
The 49ers’ 36-0 record and championship victory over Penn State earned Gimmillaro the 1998 ASICS/Volleyball magazine Coach of the Year honor. The award duplicated what Gimmillaro received from his peers when they named him the AVCA/Tachikara Coach of the Year before the final four.
Gimmillaro, who has been head coach of Long Beach State for 13 years, has now won three national titles and amassed 394 career victories. He called the 1998 championship season his most gratifying.
The 49ers had been to the NCAA Tournament 12 consecutive years in 1998. They were nearly perfect all season and were extended to five game matches only twice before the championship.
Long Beach became the first team to win six matches in NCAA Tournament play and won their first 14 games of the tournament before Penn State rallied in the third game of the championship.
Through it all, Gimmillaro never sat down.
May leads ’98 All-Americans
Player of the Millennium seems more appropriate, but Long Beach State’s Misty May had to settle for her second straight ASICS/Volleyball magazine Player of the Year award.
May, who helped Long Beach State win its third national title, led a banner class of 1998 All-Americans.
May was also twice honored as the AVCA Player of the Year and she is considered one of collegiate women’s volleyball’s best ever. She is also the first player to earn the top honor from Volleyball magazine and the AVCA in two consecutive years. The 5'9" senior setter led the 49ers to two final fours and a perfect 36-0 season in 1998. She led the nation with six triple doubles her senior season, including an 11 kill, 15 dig, and 32 assist performance in the semifinals against Florida.
The rest of the 1998 ASICS/Volleyball magazine first team consists of Penn State’s Lauren Cacciamani, Nebraska’s Fiona Nepo, Stanford’s Kerri Walsh, Texas’ Demetria Sance, Long Beach State’s Benishe Dillard, and Penn State’s Bonnie Bremner.
UCLA’s Kristee Porter, who had 38 kills against UC Santa Barbara, was named the 1998 ASICS/Volleyball magazine Freshman of the Year.
Originally published in March 1999