By Michael Sondheimer for VolleyballMag.com
December 17, 1988, remains the most important night in the history of NCAA women’s volleyball.
That evening, 30 years ago at the Williams Arena on the University of Minnesota campus, the University of Texas became the first college team not from either California or Hawai’i to win the NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship:
The Longhorns swept defending-champion Hawai’i in three side-out scoring games, 15-4, 16-14, 15-13.
“Beating Hawai’i was pretty special, because it meant so much more than a win for us as it was rather a victory for the country when we became the first team east of the Rocky Mountains to win the NCAA title,” said Texas coach Mick Haley, whose team became the first in NCAA history to ever sweep five straight NCAA Tournament matches (15-0 in games—not called sets until 2000s).
“I believe it was the start of getting people to believe that you could win a title outside of California and Hawai’i.”
He wasn’t wrong: That upset set the pace for the balanced national competition in place today. Teams from the West have won just two of the last 14 NCAA titles after winning 20 of the first 25.
Haley, whose Texas team won the last AIAW title in 1981 while the California schools played in the first NCAA Championship that same year, had four senior starters that had gone to the NCAA semifinals the previous two years.
They lost to eventual NCAA champion Pacific in 1986 and then in the 1987 semifinals to runner-up Stanford in five games after leading 2-1. The Longhorns had two top sophomores that played well against Stanford and had added a freshman super sub.
Texas upset top-seeded and unbeaten UCLA in the NCAA semifinals 16-14, 15-11, 15-13 and Haley almost missed the start. He took a wrong turn driving his family to the arena and missed warmups.
The will of the four senior starters — middle blocker Dawn Davenport (whose father Bob was a UCLA football player), setter Sue Schelfhout, Stacie Nichols and Katie Salen — to go out as winners and bring national respect from the volleyball community outside of the west, drove the team throughout the 1988 season.
While the seniors provided the leadership, Haley got outstanding play from sophomore starters Dagmara Szyszczak and Quandalyn Harrell. Texas also had a freshman substitute in Janine Gremmel (there were 12 subs then), who put down match point against UCLA.
Haley and Texas got additional motivation from comments made by Hawai’i coach Dave Shoji and then during the Friday AVCA final match-analysis session with USC coach Chuck Erbe.
“Our team was helped along by Hawai’i coach Dave Shoji talking about three teams that could win the event (Hawai’i, UCLA and Hawai’i’s semi-final opponent Illinois) prior to the start of the tournament and never mentioning us,” said Haley, who would go on to coach the 2000 women’s Olympic team to the bronze medal match.
Haley said his team was then incensed for the title match by the negative comments Erbe said to fellow AVCA coaches about his team’s chances of winning.
“When we got to the finals against Hawai’i, we were helped again when Chuck Erbe went to the podium and predicted a 3-0 Hawai’i win in the finals.”
That night in Minneapolis there was a record final crowd of 9,107, despite sub-zero snowy weather.
In retrospect, Haley missing the semifinals warmups didn’t hurt the Longhorns, since they never appeared nervous against a team that had beaten them twice in the regular season.
That day, Haley decided to drive a rental car in the Minnesota snow over to the arena from the Texas hotel instead of going in team vehicles (teams did not use buses then because of the cost). He drove with his wife, Carrie, and their two young children.
He got lost while following the team and ended up headed towards St. Paul, 30 miles away.
“My kids thought they were on an amusement park ride while my wife was worried because I had to drive over a road divider and through snow to get to a 7-Eleven to ask for directions back to the arena,” Haley recalled. “I was told if I missed one turn-off while I was driving, I would be late for the match.”
Haley drove as quickly as he could and got to the arena without his tickets or proper credentials that were with his assistant coaches.
He had to talk his way into Williams Arena by convincing security that he was, in fact, the Texas women’s volleyball coach. He played it cool once inside.
“I just ignored everyone when I got downstairs (just before the match began) and sat down on the team bench like nothing had happened and it was 10 years later before anyone found out what really happened,” added Haley, who would also win NCAA titles at USC in 2002 and 2003 after leaving Texas.
Winning the first game against a young UCLA team led to a sweep. It happened again against Hawai’i, dominating game one against a nervous and overconfident opponent, 15-4.
The only live television of the final was scheduled for Honolulu on KHNL, which had secured the NCAA rights for its regular broadcasters Chris McLachlin (who still does Hawai’i play-by-play) and John Fink (now general manager for Honolulu station KFVE).
Haley got the TV satellite signal codes from the Hawai’i broadcasters so it could be picked up in Austin (his staff called all of the local hot spots with the necessary details to secure the broadcast).
The bars in Austin became packed that evening when word spread that the match was on television there. The students and the locals started going crazy after the game one upset and any place that had the broadcast became standing room only by game three.
“We liked Mick and that is why we gave him the satellite coordinates for the match so it could be seen in Austin,” said Fink, who still teases how he lost 100 degrees through flying from 80 degree Honolulu to minus-20 degree Minnesota.
“As much as we wanted Hawai’i to win, we knew that Hawai’i had the four seniors when they won in 1987, but Texas had the four seniors in 1988 and that was the difference.”
When match point went down, the sport of women’s college volleyball had changed forever.
Shoji, who had won three of the previous six NCAA titles, was stunned in the media room.
“I knew that Texas was good and Mick’s team played a little different style of defense that bothered us more than I expected,” Shoji said. “They gave us the line to hit and kept digging us and it was just enough of a difference in the last two (deuce) games, because I still feel that we were the better team.”
Cindy Luis, the long-time reporter for the Honolulu Star Advertiser, overheard the main concern of the champion Texas players after the match.
According to Luis, Davenport, the Volleyball magazine college player of the year, said to Haley, “Coach are they going to light The Tower on campus for us?”
Texas does that for national champions and did so for the volleyball team.
“When you light the Texas tower, you feel you have done something truly special, something that will never be forgotten,” Haley said. “It also makes you a Longhorn for life, a very cool and unique tradition.”
Three years earlier, Haley talked about winning the NCAA title while attending the tournament banquet in 1985 at Western Michigan.
He was sitting at a table with mostly California volleyball people when a woman asked him whether he thought a team from outside of the West (the 1985 finalists were Pacific, Stanford, UCLA and USC) would ever win the NCAA title.
Haley boasted that his Texas team would win within the next four years.
“The woman sent me a letter after we won in 1988 telling me that she thought I was arrogant for thinking we could win the title and she apologized in the letter and said I was right,” said Haley, who finished his career last season at USC as one of the winningest coaches of all-time.
“You don’t ever expect to receive a letter like that, but I knew after how close we came in 1987 to beating Stanford in the semifinals that we could win the 1988 NCAA title and it was the most meaningful moment of my coaching career.”
As former UCLA coach Andy Banachowski said in the book NCAA Volleyball History, “When I started on the NCAA committee in 1981, we wanted to send the best teams in the country (to the semifinals) and every year we had seeded that way nationally until 1986.
“I remember rooming with Russ Rose (the Penn State coach and then also on the NCAA committee) and we would argue back and forth over changing to regional seeding, because Russ thought it was better for the sport to grow in other parts of the country because then they could compete for a national championship by winning regionally.
“He was right.”
This week’s national semifinals pit top-seeded Stanford against No. 4 BYU and No. 3 Illinois against No. 6 Nebraska. Here are some historical scenarios.
Stanford: Kevin Hambly would be the 13th different head coach to win the NCAA title (Chuck Erbe, Shoji, Banachowski, John Dunning, Haley, Brian Gimmillaro, Don Shaw, Terry Pettit, Rose, current Nebraska coach John Cook, Jim McLaughlin, current Texas coach Jerritt Elliott), while the Cardinal would become the first to ever have three different head coaches win titles (Stanford, USC, Texas and Nebraska have all had two different head coaches win).
If Stanford beats Illinois in the final, Hambly would be the second to ever beat his former school for the title, joining John Cook, who beat Wisconsin for the 2001 crown. Stanford associate coach Denise Corlett would be the first assistant to ever work for three different head coaches that won NCAA titles.
BYU: Heather Olmstead would make history as the first woman coach to win an NCAA title. Florida’s Mary Wise is the only woman to coach in the NCAA final, including last year against Nebraska. BYU would become the sixth school to win the NCAA men’s and women’s Division I titles (joining UCLA, USC, Stanford, Long Beach State and Penn State). Just 10 schools have won NCAA women’s titles, so BYU is hoping to become the 11th.
Illinois: If the Illini or BYU win, it would be the first new school to win since Washington in 2005. If Illinois wins it all, it would become the third Big Ten program to win (also Nebraska and Penn State). The Pac-12 has four previous winners in Stanford, UCLA, USC and Washington.
Nebraska: The Cornhuskers are trying to join Hawai’i, Pacific, UCLA, Stanford, USC and Penn State to win back-to-back titles. Cook would tie Dunning for second with five titles. Rose has won seven.
Michael Sondheimer is the executive director of the Southern California Indoor Volleyball Hall of Fame, which has its annual induction event on May 5 in Anaheim. He was a long-time contributor to Volleyball magazine, now VolleyballMag.com. Sondheimer is the author of three college books, “NCAA Volleyball History,” “Recruiting 101,” and “100 Black Bruin History/Sports Moments.” All are available on Amazon.