by Chad Harp
photography by Juan Garcia & Tom Galaraga
It was a roller coaster season that at many times almost didn’t happen. As the nation was stricken with grief from the greatest tragedy to occur on United States soil, another form of history was in the making in La Verne. With the rest of the sports world preparing to patriotically restart their seasons, a small group of women from the University of La Verne was beginning its adverse journey in which they would claw by low rankings, bite through off court self-destruction and – when everyone else had given up – scratch their way to the pinnacle of NCAA Division III women’s volleyball.
As the summer came to an end, the 2001 women’s volleyball season began to get underway. A group of hard-working young women were working toward a single goal: to be champions. Hoping to expose anyone not directed toward success, Coach Don Flora and Assistant Coach Randi Smart led their talented group of returnees and highly skilled freshmen through rigorous hours of on-court practices and relentless strength and conditioning training consisting of running and weight-lifting that only the strong could survive. “We knew we had all the right ingredients; all we needed to do was to get them to work right,” says Flora. “It was exciting to come onto the court with all the areas of talent the team possessed,” freshman outside hitter Amy Kratochvil remembers. A strongly competitive spirit was evident from the beginning. The very talented freshmen group was coming right off their summer of club team play, and the team’s veterans were ready to go. “Everyone seemed to have high expectations for themselves and even higher ones for the team,” says freshman outside hitter Jen Stout.
The season opener against Life Bible College was just supposed to be a warm up before the Sept. 14 road trip to face national powerhouse and tournament host Trinity University. But as an act of terrorism took down one of our nations’ symbols on Sept. 11, the Leopards annual team bonding time was also brought to an abrupt end. All flights were cancelled, leaving the team in La Verne as the tournament went on. “With not being able to go to Texas, the girls were not exposed to any big teams away from the west coast. This helped them because no one really knew what to expect,” explains ULV Athletic Director Jimmy Paschal. “The occurrence of 9/11 was an eye opener to all of us,” Smart explains. “All of us talked about our thoughts, our fears, and everything about life. Many of us came to realize what a blessing it was to be in our positions.”
La Verne proceeded to confidently sweep every match against conference opponents. Then a heated and competitive 3-1 victory over Chapman University had the night’s celebration bring more adversity into La Verne’s so far perfect season. It was the end of September, and ULV was finally getting votes for a much-anticipated national ranking, although they still had not reached the top 20.
The players were celebrating the Chapman victory at an off-campus location with fellow ULV students, when Lyssa Ortiz, a freshman, directly insulted sophomore outside hitter Amy Smith about her physical condition called Alopecia. Alopecia caused Smith to wear a wig at the time due to underproductive hair growth. Fellow teammates became irate over the comments. Seven team members went to Ortiz’s Oaks dorm room to confront her and demand an apology. What started as a basic flaring of tempers escalated to a level none expected. What followed would have a drastic affect on the season. The girls pounded continually on Ortiz’s door until she finally answered. A physical confrontation occurred between Ortiz and Smith in the hallway. As the altercation went on, the scene stunned the girls and observers. Then reality came crashing down on the team.
“None of us expected this to happen. When everything started to escalate, everyone that was there was paralyzed in shock. We didn’t know what to do,” says junior setter Meridith Zembal. As a result, six players received two game suspensions for being present, while Smith was given a seven game suspension for her role in the incident. Ortiz, who pressed charges against Smith that were dropped by the district attorney, left ULV spring semester and was not available for comment.
“There was a lot of heartache involved in making this [suspension] decision. It was decided on by a committee and wasn’t taken lightly,” says Paschal. “I had no part in the decision making process,” says Coach Flora. “I was able to give my statement to the group making the decision, and they took that with the information collected from other departments of the University to come to their decision almost a week later.”
Initially, there was much internal chaos within the team. Coaches and players not involved were disappointed with the others. Many felt that all the team’s hard work was thrown away. Instead of spoiling the season, the shaken team grew closer.
With seven players out – four of them starters – for two up-coming conference games, Coach Flora called upon Jane Sakali, a red shirt junior, who suited up against Pomona-Pitzer. Other team members played out-of-position roles. Led by senior Kelsey Kennedy, junior Lisa Mila and sophomore Sara Anderson, the inexperienced Leopard players were not only able to force a game five, but took the match 3-2. “At first it was really weird knowing I was going to be playing again,” said Sakali. “After I got over that it felt great to be able to help out the girls, and I know they really appreciated what I was doing.”
Unfortunately, Sakali could not attend the next game against conference contender Cal Lutheran, leaving the team one Leopard short, resulting in a forfeit. The Leopards first loss occurred without a single ball being served, dug or killed. Prominent national rankings were hurt; respect was damaged; yet the girls had still not been defeated.
“The fight brought out a really weird scenario,” says Winn. “It gave our team a real sense of unity. It brought us closer in ways that nothing else could have.” Kratochvil says, “I think the positives of the fight were that it let other people show their talents in a game scenario that possibly wouldn’t have been able to. For example Adele Jones was able to show what she could do, and from then on was a major player in our season.”
When the six players returned from their two game suspensions, the team re-united, with the exception of Smith’s powerful presence. With the forfeit and the absence of one of their best outside hitters, the players knew they had a tough road ahead, where mistakes could mean the end of the season.
Next up was the new ULV Classic Tournament. Coach Flora initially created the tournament to let the younger players step up and show their skills against some great competitors from local schools and Emory College from the east. “Playing the tournament stepped up our play,” says Flora. “With the absence of Smith, other girls were able to perform, and our team was able to strengthen in other areas.”
The tremendous kills of Kratochvil, and overall play of Stout and Jones put the Leopards back to form while working past their opponents. When Smith’s seven game suspension ended, La Verne added one more weapon to its already powerful artillery. “It felt great to come back and help the team,” Smith says. “It was terrible being away from it all.”
After a Oct. 16 sweep of Whittier College, the Leopards finally jumped into the national rankings at No. 19.
With a complete roster and a single forfeit being the only flaw on their record, the Leopards hosted Cal Lutheran Oct. 26. La Verne came at the Kingsmen from all angles of the net with powerful kills and big blocks to take the Match 3-1 and keep them in the running to win their second consecutive SCIAC championship.
Following the victory, La Verne was struck with a touch of luck. The Occidental Tigers were able to tear a victory away from Cal Lutheran, giving the Kingsmen their second fatal loss. The Leopards, therefore, facing Occidental in their last conference game, would have a chance to win the conference outright with a victory, or be forced into a play off with defeat. The Leopards took the match 3-1. The team turned its focus to the regionals, where the year prior the University of Puget Sound knocked La Verne out of the post season. “Winning SCIAC was really just our first step,” says Stout. “We knew we could do it, but also knew we could do much more.”
The now No. 18 ranked Leopards traveled to face unranked Nebraska-Wesleyan College at host site Cal State Hayward. Playing this very offensive opponent, the Leopards were able to beat this team that many La Verne players felt was the most powerful and explosive opponent faced all season. Next, the women took on the Northwest Conference’s No. 1 team, Whitworth College and gracefully swept the match. This put them into the West Regional Finals on the home court of their opponent, eighth ranked Cal State Hayward. “After getting past Nebraska, we got back into our game and went right after Whitworth, and they didn’t know what hit them,” Flora says with a smile. “We knew we should be here, and we were ready,” says Winn.
With fewer than 50 ULV supporters, the Leopards took the court against the Pioneers and their sea of red clad faithful fans in the packed house. The hard played games bounced back and forth as both teams fought to a deciding fifth game for one team to be named the NCAA West Region Champions. With the stadium humid from the yelling and perspiring of fans and players, the Leopards found themselves making the switch to the south side of the court for the final points of the game. They ended up taking the final game and the match, playing on the courtside where every game was won during the entire match.
“Oh where, oh where will our women play?” Wondered players, fans and families as they awaited the news of the location of the Quarterfinals. To the excitement of all, the ULV Supertents would be the host site of the NCAA Division III Quarterfinals where the Leopards would face the Mt. Saint Joseph Lions.
With the Supertents filled with 800 plus faithful fans, ranging from alumni, students, family and the infamous painted “rowdy-rooters,” (a wild bunch of boisterous and spirited ULV extremists) the underdog Leopards rode the crowd’s energy like a tidal wave and wiped out their fourth ranked opponents in a three game sweep. “It was absolutely amazing; the fans completely took over the gym,” Winn exclaims. “The crowd seemed so overwhelming to them [Lions] that we were able to step up and dominate them as they just tried to hang on.”
Excitement grew as the trip to the final four was celebrated, but their work was still not done. “For some reason after the win I was happy, but it felt like we just completed another step to becoming champions,” recalls Zembal.
Approaching the Thanksgiving holiday, the Leopards had slightly more than a week to prepare for the caliber of competition they’d be facing, and the journey to Wisconsin.
The La Verne women were traveling an unknown road to a vaguely known national championship destination; the 12 California Dorothy’s knew they weren’t in Kansas anymore. They were in Whitewater, the college town that time forgot, and fan support was at a minimum. They arrived to greetings of cold weather and bad haircuts at the site of the NCAA Division III Final Four Women’s Volleyball Tournament.
Settling in at their Super 8 Hotel, anticipation, excitement and tension was on the rise despite their bottom ranking in the tournament. Semifinal face-off came against Church of the Brethren sister school Juniata College. As the Leopards entered the gymnasium to begin their warm-ups, the La Verne cheering section rose to its feet to applaud, including the five green and orange painted rowdy-rooters who bellowed their traditional “HOOOOOOOO!!!” The entire Leopard team briefly smiled at the spectacle, comforted by the slice of home present in Wisconsin.
Then, immediately, an unfortunate injury occurred. “It was weird,” Winn says. “I was so focused and into the game that when Smith went down in warm-ups, I thought she just fell, so I told her to get up and get ready.” But Smith didn’t just fall down during the warm-ups. She came down wrong after spiking a ball and had a non-contact rupture of her ACL and MCL knee ligaments about 10 minutes before the Juniata game start. “I had never been really hurt before, but I knew it was serious as soon as it happened, ” recalls Smith.
The team, which played seven games of the regular season without the high flying outside hitter was able to battle back and forth with their well-coached opponent. In high drama fashion, the Leopard ball handling and powerful middles turned back Juniata in five games: 27-30, 30-28, 30-17, 24-30 and 15-8.
“When Smith went down, we already knew how to react,” says Zembal. “Some of us knew we’d have more weight on our shoulders than usual, and others knew they’d have to step it up, but we were ready.” The big night every Division III program practices for came right away. The match up was a battle of opposites: University of Whitewater-Wisconsin, snow-shoveling women from the plains, ranked No. 1 for the majority of the year on their home court with a sold out crowd of supporters. Their opponents: ULV’s tan skinned, highlighted haired valley girls with about 70 “Wild West” fans and not a beach in sight.
The Warhawks fired up the crowd and took an early lead as they won the first game, 22-30. However, in the second, the Leopards battled their way to a win with a hard fought 33-31 score, punctuated by the winning ace serve by senior middle blocker Adriana Contreras, who is traditionally subbed out for her serve. “I’m not a religious person, but I said every prayer I could remember,” Contreras says looking back at her serve. “I was so scared, which made the ace that much more exciting.”
La Verne let up in the third game and was absolutely pulverized by Whitewater, resulting in an embarrassing score of 16-30, putting the Warhawks one game away from being named national champions. “We knew we didn’t play well that game, so we just let it pass and kept focus on our details,” recalls Zembal.
The Leopards rebounded as their defense stepped up, holding Whitewater to a .145 hitting percentage in the fourth game. With defense dominating and its offense stepping up, the Leopards forced a deciding fifth game, taking game four with a score of 30-26. “[This was] one of the most exciting moments ever in volleyball,” says Smart. “It fulfilled every aspect of a National Championship game.”
The packed stadium was electrified with enough energy to end the Los Angeles power shortage. The national champions were on the court, and which side they were on was being unveiled right in front of the crowd’s eyes. With momentum on their side, and a pesky cheering section guarding their backs, the Leopards ran up an early 6-2 lead, frightening Whitewater into a time out call. The pause did not untrack the Leopards, as the Warhawks had to regroup again at 12-8. La Verne came to match point at 14-10, but Whitewater would not die for two more points. Then senior combo Winn set Contreras who slammed home a kill that rolled along the net to victory earning La Verne the crown and burying Whitewater’s national championship hopes for the second year in a row. “No words can explain,” “amazing,” “an unforgettable journey,” “rewarding,” “awesome,” were players and coaches responses to the feeling of winning a national championship. From a rowdy-rooters view, “Absolutely ridiculous!”
The 2001 National Champion University of La Verne Leopards jelled as a family. They laughed and cried together; fought and played together. They went through the bad times and overcame them as a stronger group together. Their highs and lows can be described best by what is printed on the back of their warm-up shirts: United.
Division III National Coach of the Year
West Region Coach of the Year
Division III National Player of the Year
SCIAC Player of the Year
SCIAC & West Region Rookie of the Year
Ryan Winn, Stacey Lupu
Ryan Winn, Stacey Lupu, Adriana Contreras