If the George Mason volleyball team didn't have so much personality, it might be suffering an identity crisis.
This is a team coached by a tenured chemistry professor. Its three all-Americas are an engineering graduate student, a premed student and a former teammate of Akeem Olajuwon's in Nigeria. For the second consecutive year the Patriots (27-6) have made it to the NCAA volleyball final four -- and done so in relative obscurity.
"The prospects of winning it all are slim," said Coach Wayne Stalick, whose team will play Southern California Friday at Pauley Pavillion in Los Angeles and, if victorious, will meet the Pepperdine-Ball State winner. "Pepperdine is undefeated. They finished second last year to UCLA and they lost one setter, but they brought back a setter (Troy Tanner) who was away on a mission for the church."
If an unusual team were the key to winning, Mason would have a lock on the title.
Moyo Kasim was Olajuwon's teammate on the Nigerian national volleyball team. He is one of 26 children (his father -- the King of Epe, a small town outside of Lagos -- has four wives). For the Patriots, he averages 4.1 kills per game.
The premed student is Jon Henwood, a dean's list scholar who leads the team in hitting percentage at .352.
"I guess we're not the run-of-the-mill group," said captain Ric Lucas, a graduate student in electrical engineering. "Right from the coaching staff on down. One coach is a chem prof, one (Ron Shayka) is a graduate of our traditional rival Penn State and one (Pat Nichols) is a Florida beach boy. And Mo, the Nigerian guy, gives us international flavor."
The Patriots' new 5-1 set isn't as interesting as their diversity, but it might help them into the final.
During a slump when the Patriots lost five of six games, Stalick decided to alter the team's basic alignment. Instead of having two setters on the court, the Patriots opted for a single setter -- Lucas -- in all situations.
"Since then we've won 14 straight," said Lucas. "I had always played in a 6-2, meaning that I would set in the back row and hit in the front row. It was a pretty bold decision."
Scott Graf from Gaithersburg is Mason's top blocker, but John Kristick, an outside hitter, and Todd Thompkins, a sort of volleyball utility player, have been instrumental in the team's success.
Accompanying the switch from the 6-2 to the 5-1, Stalick decided to insert Kristek, a freshman, and Thompkins, a sophomore. "Up to that point Kristek wasn't even on the travelling squad," Lucas said.
"When we started out the year, we really tried to mold this team to last year's," Lucas said. "That wasn't that wise. Even though we returned four starters, we really didn't have the same types of abilities. And we were overlooking the ability of some of this year's personnel."