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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, February 24, 2004

UCLA is back with NCAA title hopes

By Stephen Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

Once again, there is a spring in the step of the UCLA men's volleyball players.

It is a lightness that has more to do with the Bruins' return to glory — 12-2 record and No. 2 national ranking — after a two-year slump than the new spring-cushioned wooden floor in their renovated practice gym.

"We were not a very good team last year," said Al Scates, referring to his first Bruin team not to qualify for the postseason in his 42 seasons as head coach in Westwood. "That was probably the weakest team we've ever had. That's not the case this year."

The Bruins have rebounded with a new setter (Dennis Gonzalez), a new go-to hitter (freshman opposite Steve Klosterman) and renewed confidence.

Under Scates, it seems, the Bruins have been identified for their Trump-like mix of success and arrogance. Scates has won 20 national titles, including 18 NCAA championships since 1970 and five in the past 11 years.

While other coaches write their goals in the sky, Scates shoots for the stars. "Our goal," he said, "is to win a national championship."

Along the way, UCLA has been a thorn to the Hawai'i volleyball team's rosy aspirations. The Bruins defeated the Warriors in the 1995 NCAA West Regional and in the 1996 NCAA championship match.

After winning six of the first eight UH-hosted Outrigger Invitational tournaments, the Bruins were not invited to the past two.

"I guess we won too many of those," Scates said.

"That wasn't the issue," UH coach Mike Wilton said, noting the top-ranked Warriors play UCLA twice during the regular season.

The teams meet Thursday and Saturday in the Stan Sheriff Center in a series that has been emotionally charged in recent years.

After the Warriors won in Pauley Pavilion in 2001, UH outside hitter Costas Theocharidis danced on the scorer's table, infuriating the Bruins.

Following UH's victory in the last meeting in Honolulu two years ago, Scates told the Daily Bruin student newspaper: "We could have beaten them with a full squad, but we didn't have that."

At the time, Wilton responded: "If wishes were candy and nuts, we'd all have a great Christmas. Who cares? Whatever."

Yesterday, Scates said: "You know what, anything that happened, I don't even remember. ... I really haven't thought about it."

But Scates acknowledged that the Bruins consider the Warriors to be a "rival."

"Anybody who's good is a rival," he said. "Our rivals have changed through the years. There have been different ones in different eras. Whoever is the best is our rival. In the old days, it was Santa Barbara. It just depends on what year you want to talk about."

In turn, Wilton said: "They're a rival, but we have lots of rivals. Next week, it'll be Northridge and then it'll be USC. ... (The Bruins) are a good team and they have a marvelous history. They've had two down years in a row, so I'm sure they're ready to do a job."

Reach Stephen Tsai at 525-8051 or stsai@honoluluadvertiser.com.