What volleyball memories: 10 years ago, UCLA beat Illinois for the NCAA title


UCLA wins the 2011 NCAA title/Phil Ellsworth, ESPN photo

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UCLA-Illinois, 10 years after …

The idea for this piece came, sadly, on the day that Ed Chan died.

It was this past September 4, and I had flown to Chicago, where Ed — my partner with VolleyballMag.com — died in his sleep that morning. After dropping my bags, a few of us headed out for a late dinner and a much-needed beer. 

As we got to the corner, we bumped into Kelly Reeves, a former UCLA indoors star turned pro-beach volleyball player who was playing in the AVP event that Ed was covering.

Kelly was with her parents, which instantly reminded me that I had written about her mom, Jeanne Beauprey Reeves, during the 2011 NCAA Final Four.

Jeanne was a former UCLA great who played in the 1981 NCAA final and was a 1984 USA Olympian. That weekend in San Antonio, Kelly was about to become an NCAA champion.

Kelly Reeves jumps for joy as UCLA wins the 2011 NCAA title/ Phil Ellsworth, ESPN photo

And it dawned on all of us while we were standing on a Chicago street corner catching up that the 2011 NCAA final, in which UCLA beat Illinois in four, it was historic. It was the fourth UCLA crown and the last time any PAC-12 team other than Stanford has won an NCAA title. 

Just the players in that match!

Junior outside Rachael Kidder of UCLA was named the MVP of the tournament. Also on the team were: Reeves, a sophomore outside; Tabi Love, a senior outside who had transferred that year from Minnesota; freshman middle Zoe Nightingale, who later shook up everyone by transferring to rival USC, where she also won an NCAA beach championship; and Karsta Lowe, a sophomore outside who didn’t play in the final but later became a key member of the USA national team.

“It was definitely like the Bad News Bears, like the Island of Misfit Toys in a certain way,” Sealy said this week. “It wasn’t like you had a ton of franchise recruits, but it was a group that was cohesive who played their roles really well.”

Rachael Kidder of UCLA was the tourney MVP/Jeff Huehn photo

Illinois had a senior outside hitter named Michelle Bartsch. She was a really good college player but, at the time, was not the kind who would become the pillar of the 2021 USA Olympics team that won the gold medal last summer in Tokyo.

Future UC Irvine men’s coach David Kniffin, left, and Kevin Hambly look on in the 2011 title match as Michelle Bartsch passes/Illinois Athletics photo

Illinois also had senior outside Colleen Ward and her remarkable jump serve, and future star Liz McMahon. 

And the coaches. UCLA head coach Mike Sealy had on his staff Joy McKenzie-Fuerbringer and Dan O’Dell, while Kevin Hambly had David Kniffin and Jen Flynn Oldenburg.

For me, it was my first time covering the NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship. I was working for NCAA.com at the time, and it was just so much fun.

I had been to a handful of previous NCAA final fours and AVCA Conventions accompanying my wife, Brenda, who (I have to include this) is in four halls of fame as a high-school volleyball coach. The first one we went to was in 2000 in Richmond, Virginia, and Nebraska completed an undefeated season by beating Wisconsin in the final. 

That was a big one for those of us from Louisiana because the Wisconsin setter was New Orleanian Lizzie Fitzgerald, and Hawai’i, which Nebraska beat in the semifinals, had future Olympian Kim Willoughby, who is from Napoleonville.

Nebraska finished 34-0 with four five-set victories in 2000, including in the national-championship match. The next morning, the weather was bad, and there were plenty of us stuck waiting in the same area in the Richmond airport. I happened to sit by the first-year Nebraska coach, John Cook, and the sportswriter in me struck up a conversation, asking about all those five-set victories. Little did I know I would interview Cook many more times over the next two decades.

Fast forward to 2011. The national semifinals pitted UCLA against Florida State, and Illinois against USC and its vocal coach, Mick Haley.

Things haven’t changed. Haley is still giving strong opinions, and the subject of his ire then, transfers, is probably the topic of the day in NCAA volleyball now.

USC, which finished that season 30-5, had no transfers. UCLA did, that’s for sure, and the USC coach loved to gig his crosstown rival when possible. The UCLA coach was, and still is, Sealy, who was in his second year at his alma mater. UCLA not only had the aforementioned Love, but the setter, Lauren Van Orden, was a senior who had come from San Diego State. In the championship match, Van Orden had four kills in eight errorless attempts, 53 assists, five blocks, and 17 digs. 

“She was the difference,” Hambly said this week. Hambly has been at Stanford, where he was won two NCAA titles, since 2017.

Hambly’s Illinois team had Ward, who transferred from Florida. She had a remarkable jump serve and was the star of the Illinois team.

Florida State’s roster included a couple of super-impactful transfers from Tulane — Serbians Visnja Djurdjevic and Marija Milosavljevic. Until Louisville and Pittsburgh made it this season, Florida State was the only ACC team to ever make it this far.

That season UCLA started hot.

“I think the success that season early on surprised us a little,” Sealy admitted, “like beating No. 1 Stanford, No. 2 Cal, and then having to navigate what does that feel like and how do you handle the pressure of that.”

UCLA, however, lost three of its last six regular-season matches.

“Yeah, we lost three of our last five, but that’s the reason we won the NCAA Tournament,” Sealy said.

He maintained that by losing it took a lot of the pressure off.

“We had nothing to lose and only had to play,” Sealy said.

In the NCAA Tournament swept Maryland Eastern Shore, beat San Diego in four, swept Penn State, beat Texas in four, and then swept FSU.

Then the Bruins beat Illinois 25-23, 23-25, 26-24, 25-16.

UCLA coach Mike Sealy and staff during the title match/Phil Ellsworth, ESPN photo

Kidder had 20 kills, two assists, three blocks, and eight digs. Love had 14 kills and three blocks, and Nightingale had eight kills, a dig, and 11 blocks, one solo. Reeves had seven kills, two assists, an ace, three blocks, and 16 digs. In addition to Van Orden, Lainey Gera had 19 digs and four assists, and Bojana Todorovic had 18 digs and an assist.

UCLA, which finished 30-6 in 2011, held a 10-year reunion for that team this past October 22. Kidder was one of 11 players who joined the festivities.

UCLA held a 10-year reunion in October

Kidder played professionally for a few years, went to Texas as a volunteer assistant for two seasons (2016-17), and has stayed in Austin, where she now works at a church and is coaching club volleyball.

“I remember having this kind of surreal feeling the whole time, like I can’t believe we’re actually here, but in the back of my mind knowing we were ready to go, and we felt super confident in our ability to win the whole thing,” Kidder said this week.

“It was an interesting match. I say this in the most humble way possible, but we knew we were going to win. We were so prepared and had done everything we could do to possibly get to that point. It was just fun. Just one of the most fun matches.”

Bartsch, who is now Bartsch-Hackley and was MVP of last summer’s Volleyball Nations League heading into the Olympics, led Illinois with 22 kills, two assists, 14 digs, and two solo blocks. Ward had 17 kills, four assists, an ace, two blocks, and 13 digs. McMahon, a 6-6 freshman middle, had seven kills and four blocks. Annie Luhrsen had six kills, 47 assists, three blocks, and 14 digs. And Jennifer Beltran had 26 digs, three assists, and an ace.

Clearly, it was a star-studded affair.

For me, it was just a volleyball-journalism beginning. The next fall, I became a Volleyball magazine contributor, which ultimately led to Ed and I buying it in 2016. It’s been a heck of a 10 years. It was sad to be in Chicago that day, but I am glad to have bumped into the Reeves family.

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Special thanks to UCLA sports information director Vinny Lavalsiti for his help with this story and for this YouTube link of UCLA winning the match, crowd shots of Beaupre Reeves and family, and Sealy’s post-victory interview with Karch Kiraly (another former UCLA men’s national champion):

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