By Ron Parsons
Arizona Daily Wildcat January 19, 1996
You've heard the saying "If you can't run with the big dogs, stay on the porch?"
Well, the Arizona men's club volleyball team have jumped off that porch and are primed to run with some of the biggest dogs around in this weekend's UC-Santa Barbara Invitational Tournament.
The 24-team tournament at UCSB features not only the nation's top club teams, but also several of the NCAA's best Division I squads. Defending NCAA champions UCLA will be there, as will top 20 teams Pepperdine, Brigham Young, Penn State and Hawaii.
Arizona (13-5) will face UCLA, BYU and California in the first round. The Wildcats play BYU today at 9 a.m. and then face the Golden Bears at 2 p.m. At 3:15, the UA faces the rottweiler of the tournament: UCLA.
If the Wildcats finish first or second in their group they advance to second-round play tomorrow.
Coach Keith Martin said he is proud his team was even invited to the tournament.
"Really, it's a privilege to even be on the same court as UCLA," Martin said. "It took a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work to even get the opportunity."
The Wildcats, who finished last year ranked No. 18 in the club polls, had to petition the tournament directors for an invitation and were accepted on the basis of their strong performances against top club and Division I teams over the past few years.
"It's a testament to the athleticism of the UA men's volleyball team, and the growth of men's volleyball here in general, to even be eligible for this event," Martin said.
So how does a club team, albeit one of the country's best, compete with the likes of UCLA and other scholarship-based programs? Not very easily, said Martin.
"Those other teams have the luxury of having been together quite a bit more. They practice more," he said. "They take a lot of kids out of the juniors programs who've been playing volleyball constantly year-round - especially the California schools - and I'm in a situation where I'm still grooming athletes."
And many of those athletes are young. But Martin said Arizona will try to counterbalance that inexperience with athleticism and size.
"We're extremely young and inexperienced, but we're huge. I've never seen anything like it at the UA," Martin said.
One of those athletes is 6-foot-4 middle blocker Michael Wagner. Martin said the play of Wagner, a sophomore, is one of the UA's keys to victory.
Martin said Wagner's court presence and leadership are important on a team so young and inexperienced.
"I've got five 19-year-olds, and it's pretty hard keeping their heads where they need to be. But Michael is up and beyond his years. He's very valuable handling that middle spot," Martin said.
Wagner, from Encinitas, Calif., said he's looking forward to returning to the Southern California area and competing against some of his high school teammates.
He said that as a club team playing against Division I programs, Arizona has little pressure on its shoulders.
"We're looking to go into this and have fun, and I think if we have fun we're going to win. We have nothing to lose, and everything to gain," Wagner said.
Martin said that UA setters will have to control the ball well if the Wildcats are to win. Setting duties will fall on freshman Mike Pabst and junior Todd McMullen.
"They're going to be handling the volleyball. They're going to setting the ball," he said. "They are going to have to make the right choices."
If Pabst and McMullen can handle and pass the ball effectively, Martin said, the Wildcats could steal one from UCLA or BYU.
"We've got an opportunity to maximize our matchups with our athleticism, so we've got to make the right decisions," he said.
Assistant coach Skip Greenberg said the Wildcats could surprise the Cougars in the first match. He said BYU might overlook the Wildcats, and that it would be a huge mistake for them.
"I think if we play like we've played before, I really honestly think we can beat BYU," Greenberg said. "I think (BYU) is going to come out there saying, 'This is a club team,' and not play their starters. They're going to put the guys who are trying to m ake the team out there, and I think we can jump on them."