As a teenager in China, Li Liu learned to play volleyball under the most rigid of teaching and coaching systems. Viewed as candidates for China's exceptional national team, she and her teammates often practiced the same drill for hours. If one player faltered, all did extra work. There were no excuses allowed. No complaints. No questioning of the coach.
In her first season as Georgetown University's volleyball coach, Liu hasn't been nearly as strict. But she has continued to adhere to the basic idea that responsibility and discipline are as important to winning as spikes, digs and kills. As a result, the Hoyas recently won their first Big East Conference championship and tonight will try for their first NCAA tournament victory when they play 24th-ranked Arkansas in a first-round match at Long Beach State.
Last season the Hoyas finished second in the Big East. They made their NCAA tournament debut and lost in the first round. "We were the underdogs the entire season," junior outside hitter Kiran Gill said. "Last year, we played like we had nothing to lose. This year, we're acting like a championship team and a dominant team."
They finished this regular season 27-4 (9-2 Big East), the most wins for the team since 1982. They stunned rival Notre Dame (typically the Big East's top team, which defeated Georgetown during the regular season) in the Big East tournament final, with a win in straight sets.
Sophomore Amy Schweitzer is ninth in the nation in service aces. Gill, a first-team all-Big East selection, and fellow outside hitter Yulia Vtyurina are dynamic together offensively and defensively.
Also among the team's more cherished accomplishments: It defeated all nine of the local colleges on its schedule, including Liu's alma mater, George Washington.
Gill and her teammates credit Liu for those accomplishments. "She makes us work hard to reach our goal," said Vtyurina, whose sister, Svetlana, was a teammate of Liu's at GW. "Yes, she's really tough, but that's a good thing."
If a player is late to volleyball practice at Georgetown, she can expect Liu to make her run 2 1/2 miles. If the player is late again, the distance is doubled. If a player has an excuse--such as when a thunderstorm knocked out power, preventing a player's alarm clock to sound and making her late--Liu doesn't want to hear it.
"I want the players to take responsibility, to have discipline," Liu said. "We don't need excuses."
Liu began her volleyball career at age 14, playing for one of the top club teams in China. Players from that team, called August 1st, often moved on to the national team, and two of Liu's former coaches also led Olympic teams. Discipline and responsibility were constantly stressed, she said.
When Liu came to the United States in 1993, she was a shy person who spoke no English. She attended George Washington, where she took seven classes a day and played volleyball. Her teammates helped her learn English and changed her into an outgoing, strong-willed player, she said.
She was eligible to play for the Colonials for two years, becoming the Atlantic 10 Conference rookie of the year in 1994 and being named to the all-Atlantic 10 first team both seasons.
Liu stayed at GW for another year as student assistant coach before accepting an assistant coaching job at Southeastern Louisiana in 1997. She returned to Washington the following year to be an assistant to Georgetown's coach at the time, Jolene Nagel.
When Duke offered Nagel its head coaching job, she invited Liu to join her there. But Liu declined, accepting the Georgetown job instead.
"It's amazing how much she knows," Gill said. "In practice, she comes out and plays against us, so you can see how good she is. She's always tough, but it's a good thing. it's just making us better athletes."
CAPTION: Says Georgetown's Yulia Vtyurina, above, of Coach Li Liu: "She's really tough, but that's a good thing."