Michelle Jaworski, a 5-foot-9 senior at Penn State and the Atlantic 10 player of the year, learned this summer that volleyball stars shine a little brighter on the West Coast.
Jaworski was the only East Coast player selected to the U.S. national B team and some of her teammates gave her the sense that volleyball stops at the Mississippi River.
"Maybe I should've expected it," said Jaworski, who played her junior and senior years at Churchill High School. "They said, 'Oh, Penn State, where's that?' They had no idea. They'd never heard of us playing volleyball before."
Partly in an attempt to enlighten folks who think volleyball is best in only the West, the NCAA moved its Division I championship tournament. The University of Maryland is the first East Coast school to host the women's national tournament as Cole Field House is the site of this year's Final Four.
Louisiana State (34-6), having its best NCAA tournament in four appearances, overcame a two-game deficit to beat Texas in the quarterfinals and faces UCLA at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in the first semifinal match. Top-ranked UCLA (34-1), national champion in 1984, breezed past Stanford in three games in the quarterfinals.
The University of the Pacific (29-6) takes on Nebraska in the other semifinal. Pacific, winner of national titles in 1985 and 1986, beat defending national champion Long Beach State in the region final. The Cornhuskers (32-2) were runners-up last year and in 1986.
The winners advance to the title game 7:30 Saturday night.
Maryland, by winning the ACC, and Penn State, by winning the Atlantic 10, got automatic bids to the 32-team tournament. The Terps lost to Texas (15-3, 15-5, 15-7) in the first round. Penn State had its winning streak ended at 44 by Nebraska in the quarterfinals.
Where the best volleyball is played is a touchy subject.
"That's one of the great myths of the sport in this country," said Nebraska Coach Terry Pettit. "When I play someone I'm not concerned if there's an ocean next to you. I'm concerned whether you can pass."
Penn State has made it to the NCAA tournament every year of its 10-year existence. Midwestern and southern teams regularly rank up there with the elite. But Jaworski's experience goes a long way in showing that the perception of volleyball as a game rich in West Coast flair and tradition persists.
"It makes you want to work that much harder to prove you can play volleyball in the East," said Jaworski. "Maybe we don't have as many good players, but you've got to start somewhere."
Nebraska has athletes from New York on its roster and traditional western powers recruit in the Midwest and East.
"That's probably because of an East Coast work ethic," said Coach Janice Kruger, who guided Maryland to its first NCAA tournament. "Players from the East have assumed they'd have to work that much harder to make it and they're willing to do that."