Santa Clara Embraces Underdog Role

Dec. 15, 2005

Terrence Thomas
San Antonio Express-News

Santa Clara's Caroline Walters moved up to the microphone at a news conference Wednesday, prepared to answer a question about her team's prospects against top-ranked Nebraska.

As the sophomore libero pondered her response, she struggled to find her words.

"I think we've always been the. .. What's that word?'" Walters asked teammates Cassie Perret and Kim McGiven. "Underdog. There you go."

As Santa Clara prepares for its semifinal match at 8 tonight against Nebraska in the NCAA Women's Volleyball Final Four at the Alamodome, the Broncos (27-4) do so knowing that few give them a chance to win.

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They do so knowing that they are the first unseeded team and lowest-enrolled school to reach the Final Four. Santa Clara will do so knowing that it is Cinderella in tennis shoes, ankle braces and kneepads.

"We're going to embrace everything that's thrown at us this weekend," Santa Clara coach Jon Wallace said. "Sure, we'll wear that slipper."

Playing the role of Cinderella is nothing new to Santa Clara. It has been doing it to rave reviews the past two weeks, knocking off defending champion Stanford, fourth-seeded Arizona and powerful Pepperdine to make it this far.

"To me, Santa Clara is the Gonzaga of men's basketball," Nebraska coach John Cook said, a reference to Gonzaga's penchant for the upset in the NCAA men's basketball tournament. "They're unseeded and won three huge matches to get here and will be confident. Santa Clara is probably still on cloud nine."

Considering the path Santa Clara has traveled to San Antonio, it has every reason to rejoice.

After starting the season 22-1 and earning a No. 10 ranking, the Broncos lost three of their final four regular-season matches.

"It was really frustrating at that point in the season," Walters said. "All the effort was there. It was just the pieces weren't coming together. We kind of took that for what it was and then we realized this is just something we're going through."

Santa Clara defeated San Francisco to end the regular season and Sacramento State to start to the NCAA tournament. It then defeated Stanford for the first time, ending a 19-match losing streak to the Cardinal.

The Broncos haven't looked back.

"I think the Stanford (victory) was huge for us, huge for our program," Walters said. "That kind of win happens once every five years."

Santa Clara defeated conference rival Pepperdine before fending off a match point to outlast Arizona in five games in the Palo Alto, Calif., regional final.

"Our team throughout the tournament has developed -- and throughout the whole season -- the ability to really battle," McGiven said. "I think that we're great when we face adversity. We're great when we get into Game 5. We're great when we get down. We know how to fight back."