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The Bulls' backbone

Michelle Collier and Ale Domingos grew up together in Recife, Brazil. They have been best friends and volleyball-playing buddies since childhood.

Collier left home after high school, in 1998, to attend South Florida, and this fall Domingos transferred from junior college to USF, reuniting the pals after three years apart.

Domingos, however, discovered her friend had changed _ a lot.

"I saw her, and I was like, "Wow,' " said Domingos, the USF setter. "I hadn't seen her play for (more than three years). I was like, "This girl has improved so much.' "

Collier, an outside hitter for the Bulls, is a 5-foot-9 package of power. The 2000 Conference USA player of the year, she is an explosive leaper whose right arm uncoils to release rocket-propelled spikes.

"Yeah, I like to hit the ball," said Collier, who was dubbed the Brazilian Bomber by a few members of the USF baseball team. "Maybe I don't like the ball. No, I'm just kidding. I just love to play. I just have so much fun being out there."

Collier holds USF's match, season and career records for kills, but she's adept at all aspects of the game, not just hitting.

"Michelle is one of the best hitters in the country and one of the most versatile," USF coach Nancy Mueller said. "She's not just a great front-row player. She's a very good server (Collier has a wicked jump serve) and defensive player."

Collier, 21, whose first name pronounces the "ee" sound on the end, led USF to a 28-6 record and berth in the NCAA Tournament last season. This season she has the Bulls, who have worked several newcomers into the rotation, poised for a title run at the Conference USA tournament, which begins today in Houston.

Last year and in 1998, the Bulls lost in the C-USA tournament title match to Louisville. USF (21-7, 13-3) is the No. 3 seed and has won nine straight.

"We were very young at the start of the season, but now people are starting to get the hang of it," said Collier, who played on the same club team in Brazil as former USF star Paula Araujo. "The team chemistry is great. It's so nice to see it finally click at the right time."

Though she is smashing school records, Collier has more than a year of eligibility remaining. Early this season she became the career leader in kills, and two weeks ago she recorded kill No. 2,000. Her 6.28 kills per game last year were almost a kill better than Araujo's school record.

How big is Collier's impact? When she missed virtually the entire 1999 season with a knee injury, USF went 15-18. In 1998, 2000 and 2001, the Bulls are a combined 74-21.

Collier's competitiveness and pure power set her apart.

"She plays like a man," Mueller said. "And she is a pressure player. She says, "Give me the ball' on match point. She wants it, and she'll swing away every time."

Collier _ and USF volleyball _ might be the best kept sports secret in the area. The team has qualified for the NCAAs six of the past eight seasons, and Collier likely would win a vote for best athlete on campus in her or his respective sport.

"It is definitely (frustrating)," Collier said of her team's, and the sport's, lack of recognition. "In Brazil (volleyball) is the No. 2 sport. Here, volleyball and women's sports in general don't get as much attention."

After graduation, Collier and Domingos plan to play professionally in Europe, where volleyball players can make a comfortable living.

Just two years ago, however, Collier's future was in question after the drastic injury to her left knee. At the start of the 1999 season, she tore the anterior cruciate ligament, medial collateral ligament and meniscus.

"She could not stand sitting on the bench (when she was injured)," Mueller said. "That was the hardest thing for her. It helped her recovery and rehabilitation. She had to get back on the court."

Though Collier's brilliance as a player has elevated the program, Mueller and Domingos say her attitude _ or lack of attitude _ is what bonds the team.

"Everybody on the team wants to be like her," Domingos said. "She teaches me a lot on a daily basis."

"She is a coach's dream," Mueller said. "Other coaches come up to me and say, "I wish I had one like her.' "

Needing a strong result in the conference tournament to secure another NCAA berth, USF draws confidence knowing the best player on the court is on its side of the net.

"The other teams, they respect her." Domingos said, "And because of that they respect us.

"Michelle, she just takes this team and carries it on her back."