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USF takes off with volleyball

The players sat in a room at the Sun Dome in November, biting their nails as they watched the NCAA selection process via satellite.

They knew they were long shots. No team from the University of South Florida ever had gone to the NCAA volleyball tournament.

The Bulls wouldn't have had to worry had they won the Metro Conference tournament and its automatic invitation. But they come up short in the tournament and were at the mercy of the selection committee.

When USF didn't appear in the bracket of the South Region, there was disappointment. But minutes later the mood changed. "USF" went up on the screen in the Mideast.

"There was complete hysteria," coach Perri Hankins said.

Before the players could come back down to earth, they hit the jackpot again. If they could get past Wisconsin in the first round, their second-round game would be in Hawaii.

"I don't know what was bigger to them," Hankins said. "Making the NCAAs or having the chance to go to Hawaii."

This season the players won't need manicures after the selection process. Despite the loss of six players from last season's 23-7 squad, USF is expected to make its second straight trip to the NCAAs.

The Bulls are 22-3 (4-0 in the conference) and on a 16-match win streak with three matches remaining before they host the Metro Conference tournament Nov. 18-20. The home-court advantage is especially good news considering the Bulls haven't lost at home in their past 27 matches.

Even if the Bulls don't win the tournament, they should be a lock for a spot in the 48-team field because of their No.

8 ranking in the South Region poll.

"We hope going to the NCAAs will become a normal thing and not an aberration," said Hankins, who has turned the program around since arriving in 1991 from the University of the Pacific, going 78-39 in her four-year tenure.

Hankins sees the current success as just a start.

"We're kind of like a sky rocket just going up," she said. "We're just riding it and seeing how far we can go. Right now, there is no ceiling."

The big-name recruits haven't been lining up at USF's door. Most still go to California schools, where volleyball is most popular. But Hankins thinks that will change.

"USF definitely has the the total package," she said, adding that the team will be playing in a new gym nicknamed "The Corral," starting with the conference tournament.

For now, Hankins has built a winner out of a group of scrappy players who as a team are greater than the sum of the individuals.

"We bonded right away," freshman setter Sarah Runka said.

Their battle cry before every game: "Aggressive."

The Bulls don't have a starter who is 6-feet tall. Sophomore middle blocker Erica Berggren is listed as 6 feet, but assistant sports information director Jack Heilig said, "Maybe with her high tops on."

Their only big-time recruit is junior outside hitter Haylee Red, who transferred to USF after her freshman season at the University of California at Santa Barbara. The 5-foot-9 Red, who ranks 19th nationally in kills, was a Fab 50 recruit (top 50 in the country). When her eligibility expires, she hopes to make the U.S. Olympic team for two-person beach volleyball.

The Bulls feature two players ranked in the top 10 nationally in statistical categories. Berggren is No. 1 in hitting percentage at .491 (number of kills minus errors divided by total attacks). Runka is No. 9 in assists, averaging 13.26.

Add to the mix junior outside hitter Sylvie Quenneville, who transferred from the University of Montreal after that program folded last season.

The French Canadian is known for her ability to dig balls that look like sure winners, and her Billy Crystal impression.

When her teammates could use a little loosening up on or off the court, she goes into her spiel. "Remember, darling, it's better to look good than to feel good," she demonstrated during a water break at practice Wednesday. "And you look maaaahvelous."

Right now, the USF team is looking maaaahvelous. And the Bulls couldn't have picked a better time. With pro baseball and hockey in the midst of work stoppages, the volleyball team is getting a lot of publicity. It has been featured in several newspaper articles and on the sportscasts of all local television stations.

"I like to go to Lightning games," Hankins said. "But I like the media attention we've been getting. For women's sports and volleyball, it's tough to get. This is big for us. But we know if we weren't winning, we wouldn't be getting the attention."

Oh, and by the way, Hankins wants everyone to know that the team's last regular-season match at the USF Gym is Saturday night at 7:30 versus University of North Carolina-Charlotte.

Said Hankins: "It's a big game. You should come."