Karolyn Kirby wasn't really a member of the U.S. women's volleyball team that won a silver medal at the 1984 Olympics. But she was close.

Kirby trained with the team for two months and made the Olympic roster as an alternate. But her involvement with the Games went no further than the portable television she watched as she drove across the country, back to her Massachusetts home.

"I did more watching than driving," she admitted.

But now, Kirby is firmly on the team that begins qualifying play for the 1988 Olympics next year. She will lead that team against the bronze-medalist Japanese national team in an exhibition match at 8 tonight at Smith Center.

The match, the second of a seven-game, nine-day tour with the Japanese, is the United States' last international competition before next year's world championships. In their last meeting, the United States beat Japan, three games to none, to win the Taurus Cup in Hungary in July.

Kirby, 24, is understandably uncomfortable when mentioned as a part of the silver medal effort. Still, as Team USA's sole link to 1984, she reluctantly uses that success to promote the 1988 effort. "The 1984 team did a lot for volleyball in this country, and I respect that. But we try to put that in the past," she said. "Our current team can't worry about the 1984 Olympics. We've got to find out what we can do."

Although she was an all-America setter/hitter at Kentucky in 1984 and two-time nominee as the best female college athlete in the country, Kirby entertained no illusions of Olympic grandeur in 1984. She had no international experience and understood that more than talent was needed to break into the close-knit lineup.

"I realize I had the talent to be on the squad, no question," said Kirby. "But I wasn't with the team long enough to make it. Some of those players had been together for 10 years . . . I hadn't paid my dues."

"Karolyn has the potential to be a superstar," said Team USA Coach Taras Liskevych. "She has all the attributes and I'd love to build this program around her. But we want to build a long-lasting program, not a single player or team."

With most of the 1984 Olympians now playing professionally in Europe or Japan, Kirby has become the Team USA leader on and off the court. Tall (5 feet 11), and blond, Kirby is a part-time model and smart enough to recognize that good looks often can help sell a lesser-known sport. Therefore, she gets to each city before her teammates to drum up media support.

Kirby also understands her value to the team is such that injuries must be overcome. "At first I thought I just jammed it," she said, holding up her swollen right ring finger. "But when I lost feeling in it, I knew it was worse."

Despite surgery and the insertion of four wires and two pins, Kirby has almost no movement in the finger. Nevertheless, she will tape it up and play each night against Japan, cognizant of her aesthetic and athletic value to the team.