For whom the Bell tolls

It is Wednesday afternoon. The McKale Center is nearly empty, except for the women's volleyball team, practicing on the hardwood.

They are executing a hitting drill, practicing sets and kills.

The squeak of shoes on the court and the thud of bouncing balls can be heard above coach Dave Rubio's instructions. Setters Laura Bartsch and Michaela Ebben pass to their teammates, who call out where they want the ball. Some kills go into the net, others go sailing into the first row of seats.

Then it's Barbara Bell's turn. The junior left outside hitter leans forward slightly as assistant coach Stephen Carlat passes the ball to Bartsch.

As the ball travels in a soft arc from Bartsch's hands to the left side of the court, Bell, 6'1", begins her approach: three steps towards the net, then an explosive leap up and forward. Her right arm reaches well behind her head, and her legs are a good three feet above the court.

Then Bell's right hand and the ball meet. The sound, something akin to the noise made by a crack of thunder during an August monsoon, echoes throughout the empty stadium. The ball sails in a blur to the far side of the court and hits just inside the line. A perfect kill.

Bell's teammates whoop and clap, exchanging high-fives as the next hitter steps up. They're excited, but not surprised; they've seen it before. As Arizona's starting left outside hitter the past two years, she's been the team's first, and best, offensive option.

"The left side hitter gets 25-30 percent of all sets in a game," Rubio said. "We knew when Barb first came here she would become the kind of player who could handle that much hitting."

A Tucson native, Bell attended Flowing Wells High School, where she set the national high school record for kills and won a state championship. She was recruited by UA, Arizona State University, University of Texas El Paso, and University of Southern California, but she always knew she wanted to attend Arizona.

"Ever since I was a freshman in high school, it was my dream to play here. I knew if I'd played in college, it would be at Arizona," said Bell, 22.

Bell's initial year, however, was not easy; she left the team early in the Fall semester. "I was sick, and I wasn't ready to play all the time. I wasn't physically ready," she said.

"It was a reality check."

But coaches and players kept on her to rejoin the team, and later, in the Spring, she did. Of her time away from the team, Bell said "it was the best thing that ever happened to me."

She returned to training and started displaying the competetive fire that, coupled with her natural physical talent, would make hre a premier player in the Pac-10.

"Left-side hitters have to develop a tremendous amount of competetive fire," said Rubio. "They also have to have great decision - making skills, and Barb has developed those."

Bell agreed that playing the outside left position, normally reserved for the team's strongest hitter, takes not just physical ability but mental sharpness as well.

"Your mentality has to be strong. You're the go-to person," she said. "You have to be big, so you can put the ball away, be able to hit above the other team's blocks. You need to be smart player and a hard hitter."

After redshirting in 1992, Bell burst onto the Pac-10 scene in 1993. She was the only freshman on the All-Pac-10 team and set the UA freshman record with 417 kills. And, she helped lead Arizona to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA tournament.

Carlat said Bell came into her first season ready to play. "One of the things that set her apart a bit was that she'd already played a lot. She started off very, very well. She carried a big load for the team."

But she carried, perhaps, too much of a load that year. Before that season started, she had arthroscopic knee surgery, but played every game anyways.

"She just got worn out," Carlat said.

Bell again underwent knee surgery - twice - before the start of the 1994 season. But she was still the team's driving force, leading the UA with 428 kills (her total of 845 ranks her ninth on the UA career list). And she led the team to its second straight Sweet Sixteen appearance.

While four knee surgeries might have affected her lateral movement and jumping, UA coaches said that she has compensated for the physical losses with a positive attitude and game smarts.

Carlat said "Fortunately for her, she has the savvy and instincts to overcome the injuries. It's a sign of maturity."

Rubio echoed those sentiments. "She brings a tremendous amount of leadership, composure, and stability to our team. She's a junior who plays more like a senior."

Bell, for her part, is not satisfied with the accolades that come with helping your team reach two straight Sweet Sixteens. The UA has been picked to finish 5th in the conference and is ranked no. 16 nationally.

"The first part of the season doesn't matter. It's the NCAA's that mean everything," said Bell.

And getting past the Sweet Sixteen?

"I don't expect anything less that."

Read Next Article