Behind The Scenes

Volleyball championships provide backdrop for reflections on sport

Author Keri Potts played volleyball for Syracuse University from 1995-99.

Editor’s note: The 2011 NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championships have reached the national semifinals stage in San Antonio. Tonight at 7 ET in the Alamodome, Florida State meets UCLA; USC meets Illinois in the 9 ET nightcap. Catch all the action on ESPN2/ESPN3. Below Keri Potts, ESPN PR/Director, College Sports, reflects on her involvement with the sport for Front Row.

I confess, when I was a teenager, I dreamed of playing for the U.S. Olympic women’s volleyball team.

A wicked growth spurt had derailed my hopes of becoming the next Mary Lou Retton, so instead, I turned my eyes toward Caren Kemner, Bev Oden and an array of tall, powerful women athletes who could hit the snot out of a volleyball.

And every year, when the NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship was televised, I’d fire up the VCR and glue myself to the TV set for the match.

For days afterward, I’d rewind, pause and “slow-mo” a variety of great plays so that I might simulate their greatness.

After all, the NCAA Championship was a window into the next U.S. Olympic team roster, and I wanted desperately to play in the NCAA Championship.

Dreams have a way of changing shape though, and after completing my volleyball career at Syracuse University but never making it to the tournament, I altered mine.

Two years later, while working at the NCAA, I channeled my passion for the sport toward serving as media coordinator for the Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship.

I also was a rules liaison to the first NCAA women’s volleyball rules committee which was responsible for implementing rally scoring, the let serve, and the then-controversial libero position (all have been credited with making the game faster and more compelling to watch).

Now, I work for a company that televised 23 regular-season volleyball matches this year and will have aired seven contests from the 64-team NCAA tournament when the last point is scored. I have loved watching the sport grow.

Given the parity in Division I, each championship is a chance to see a great storyline unfold; this year is no different.

The semifinals tonight on ESPN2 and ESPN3 at 7 and 9 p.m. ET signal the return of storied program UCLA to the sport’s Final Four for the first time in five years and its 12th semifinals appearance overall.

The Bruins pulled off an upset of No. 1 seed Texas in the regional final to earn a trip to San Antonio.

Surprisingly, as a No. 9 seed, they’re not even the “Cinderella” team in this tournament.

That honor goes to the squad they’ll face across the net: No. 12-seeded Florida State which has clawed its way through its bracket and past the No. 4 and 5 seeds to earn its and the ACC’s first trip to the national semifinals.

Equally exciting is the appearance of the Illinois Fighting Illini — after a 23-year hiatus from the national semifinals — in the night’s second match.

Theirs is a significant accomplishment given Big Ten Conference foe Penn State’s lock on the championship the past four years.

I know at least one sportswriter and Illinois alum (See: Will Leitch) who will be a tangled mass of nerves during their match against perennial power USC, a six-time title winner.

Versatile play-by-play woman Beth Mowins and three-time Olympic gold medalist Karch Kiraly will call the action for both semifinals and Saturday’s title match (8:30 p.m. on ESPN2/ESPN3).

Anyone who has followed Beth on her Twitter handle @bamwins knows she has been tracking on the sport’s best teams all season. And Karch is a three-time Olympic gold medalist with three NCAA titles and a 129-5 record as a Bruin. He is the best player to ever play the game and provides insight few can match.

I can’t lie.

I still think about what it would have been like to play in the Tournament.

But things worked out just fine and now, instead of cranking up the VCR, I’ll watch ESPN2’s coverage live and review the matches on my DVR (old habits die hard).

I suppose we’ve all grown up a bit from those early days of women’s college volleyball.

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