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.
Scates signed Volstad after scouting him by videocassette. "Ozzie was hitting balls for nearly an hour," Scates remembers. "He hit set after set and didn't seem to tire. After an hour his shoulders were still rising above the eight-foot net." Volstad was, at the time, a security guard at a naval base. Scates offered him a free—and very long—ride to UCLA.
Despite being half a world away, the school was not entirely foreign to Volstad. "In the eighth grade I had a sweatshirt that said UCLA," he says. "UCLA sweatshirts were very fashionable. Of course, I didn't know what the letters stood for."
Volstad's first name is Asbjorn, but his Bruin teammates dubbed him Ozzie on the first day of practice his freshman year. That season Volstad started as a middle blocker on UCLA's 38-0 squad. He became the first freshman to make first-team All-America since UCLA's Karch Kiraly in 1979. Kiraly went on to lead the U.S. to the gold medal in the 1984 Olympics and victory in both the 1985 World Cup and the 1986 world championships.
Like Kiraly, Volstad passes half the court (covers on service reception), is tenacious defensively and shows great intelligence. After watching a USC game on television earlier during the NCAA regionals, Volstad was able to steal offensive signals between Trojan coach Bob Yoder and setter Mike Lauterman in Saturday night's final and adjusted the UCLA defense accordingly. (Off the court he has a 3.6 GPA as a computer science-engineering major.)
Volstad's brother, Torgeir, a former Norwegian national team player, was in Los Angeles last week to cover Ozzie for Verdens Gang, Norway's largest newspaper. He says Scates has vastly improved Ozzie's blocking. Scates, in turn, says Volstad is now the best one-on-one blocker in the college game.
"I believe the collegiate championship is won at the net," says Scates, a 1961 UCLA grad. "I was a middle blocker for the U.S. team, which is why I love to teach kids how to block. It's what I dig." If there's anything Scates digs more than blocking, it's winning. Scates had grown edgy after a two-year Bruin title drought in 1985 and '86. He scrapped his cherished two-setter offense and installed the same one-setter attack used by the U.S. national team. For the first time ever, he asked his team to report last September two weeks before classes started to begin work on the new offense. "Two years is the maximum I can go without winning a championship," says Scates. A man of his word, he has never gone three consecutive years without a crown since taking over at UCLA in 1963.
So maybe the Bruin players are allowed to be a little cocky. Indeed, that's the way Scates likes them. "I look for a guy who just hates to lose," he says. "I'm not looking for a guy who wins the sportsmanship award." It's hard to argue with success. Scates is 673-91 overall; 186-16 in Pauley Pavilion. Though a certain UCLA basketball coach has draped championship banners all over Pauley, it wasn't until a few years ago that Scates was allowed to hang the solitary banner that bears his teams' title years. "I still find that hard to swallow," Scates says.
The 1987 team will now join the 11 others on the banner. And how does this team measure up? Does it rank as one of his best? "I don't know which team was the best," Scates says, "but I know this team was good enough." And they're more than happy to tell you so.
Making good on the Bruins' tough talk, Volstad murdered USC in the final with 23 kills.
While some Bruins soared, heeding their coach's philosophy that blocking wins national titles, Lamberg went to his knees.