Oct. 6, 2003
by Grant Hughes
The Santa Clara
SANTA CLARA, Calif. - The number 14.38 does not mean much to people outside NCAA women's volleyball. Within that world though, it is the most important number there is. It means 14.38 assists per game. It led the nation last year, and it meant a new NCAA record. Even if you don't live in the world of women's volleyball, you should know this: it belongs to Kelli Sousa.
Sousa, the Broncos' senior setter, is the best in the country at what she does and is a big reason why Santa Clara has spent the past couple of years ranked in the nation's top 25. Behind every good team is a great leader.
"She is our leader on the floor, she directs traffic, she makes things go," said Head Coach Jon Wallace. "If she were a basketball player, she'd be a lottery pick as a point guard. She absolutely understands how to make a team better. She knows the game and that knowledge allows her to help others improve."
Volleyball depends on teamwork, communication and precision. Setting, one of the important components of the game, is an unselfish trade by nature, so Sousa takes special pride in making the team, and her teammates, as good as they can be. Despite her impressive record, she answers questions about this season's personal goals modestly.
"I don't have any personal goals," Sousa said. "If I did, I wouldn't be doing my job. My goal is for everyone else to achieve theirs, and for the team to be as good as it can be."
Senior Becky Potter, the Broncos' All-American middle blocker, credits Sousa with much of her own recent success.
"Kelli came to me before the season last year and said 'my goal is to make you an All-American,'" said Potter. "People really have no idea how important she is."
Sousa, in response, said, "I'd rather Becky or anyone else be an All-American than me. When the other players do well, it means I'm doing my job. But it definitely is satisfying to see everyone else get recognition."
The chemistry between Sousa and Potter is incredible.
"Kelli absolutely knows what I'm going to do before I do it," said Potter. "We joke all the time about exchanging looks, and when she asks me what I want to hit, she knows the answer before I even say anything."
Wallace admits to being awed by the Sousa/Potter tandem.
"I don't know if there's such a thing as Kelli overfeeding Becky, but she obviously looks for her a lot," said Wallace. "They're both so good that sometimes the coaches just sit back and enjoy it. It's really a fun thing to watch."
Said Potter, "It definitely didn't start that way. During our sophomore and junior seasons we just got more and more comfortable and good things started happening.
Still though, she knows that sometimes it's best for the team to set other people."
Said Wallace, "Her chemistry with Becky allows her to be a little more deceptive, hold blocks longer and really surprise the other team."
As good as Sousa's chemistry with her team is on the court, it's even better off it. Whether it's at practice or on road trips, Sousa has a certain way of making sure that everyone is comfortable and having a good time.
"She hates it when things get too serious," said Potter. "She's definitely the funniest person on the team, the one that jokes around the most."
Sousa is known for her unique tension-easing method, which includes loud outbursts, typically containing any number of choice four-letter words. Potter explained the phenomenon.
"Any time people get too nervous or there's too much tension, Kelli will just throw out a random curse word to crack everyone up," said Potter. "She certainly wants to win, but she's also concerned with making sure everyone's having fun, which is important."
Sousa commented, "Basically, I'll do whatever needs to be done to help the team. If that means making a joke, fine. If it means being serious, I'll do that."
Senior middle blocker Becky Biniek also spoke to Sousa's ability to joke but remain intense.
"Kelli is actually really focused before a game, and she has to be," said Biniek. "She's got so much to think about as a setter. Will the pass be were it needs to be? Where does everyone want the ball? Who's the weak blocker on the other team?"
But Biniek was quick to emphasize Sousa's trademark humor.
"She came to practice last Halloween dressed as a player from the men's water polo team, said Biniek. " It was something to see."
Sousa is also someone to hear.
"Sometimes, drills seem like they're taking forever, so I'll start singing a song or something," admitted Sousa.
Generally vocal, she can get even more talkative whenever Wallace becomes critical or gives her a hard time. Knowing he means well, Sousa, according to Biniek, "fires back at him, with a joke or something, which everybody gets a kick out of."
Biniek continued, "She's earned the respect of the coaches, so she has a sort of privilege to talk back sometimes."
Recalled Sousa, "One time, Jon [Wallace] was really riding me, giving instruction, telling me to do this, do that. And it just started to bug me. So I said, 'Jon, I don't know what your deal is, but you're like a bug! What's the problem?'"
Sousa knows that Wallace piles responsibilities on her because she's capable of dealing with them.
"It's great that our relationship is good enough to where I can mouth off to him, like to a friend," she said. "We both know we respect each other, though."
Despite tough opponents and a grueling travel schedule, the Broncos, led by Sousa's 14.3 assists per game, have hung tough in 2003. As the team continues to come together, Sousa has a good chance to put her own record in danger. Ranked 16th at the beginning of this week, Santa Clara is optimistically eyeing the upcoming schedule, which includes 10 games against top 25 teams, four of which are in the top 10.
Sousa knows what it takes to get the most out of her teammates. Even if she "could care less" about her own statistics, she knows that when she does her job, the team has its best chance to win. And you can bet that if the Broncos continue the success they have enjoyed over the last two years, numbers like 14.38 will start to mean something to everyone.