A season to remember
1989 volleyball team remains the only UTA group to reach an NCAA Final Four
Cathy George had no idea what she had, not in June 1989 when she arrived as UTA’s volleyball coach and certainly not in August when the season began with a No. 17 ranking but two losses in the first six matches.
What she had, as it turns out, was the most storied team in the history of UTA volleyball.
The 1989 Lady Mavericks went 31-4, and so far theirs is the only UTA team to reach an NCAA Final Four. The unheralded school in Arlington, Texas—grouped in Hawaii with traditional volleyball powers Long Beach State, UCLA and Nebraska—finished third in the nation.
The ’89 Lady Mavs were among four teams inducted into the UTA Athletic Hall of Honor in September.
“I knew when I was taking over that [former head] coach Lisa Love had a lot of success with that group,” said George, who’s now head coach at Western Michigan University. “But when you’re ranked 17th, it’s a big jump to say you’re going to be in the top four.”
Especially considering what UTA lost from the 30-4 1988 team, which fell one victory short of the Final Four.
Ana de Oliveira, the school’s first American Volleyball Coaches Association All-American, exhausted her eligibility in ’88. So did Jackie Bennett, a two-time All-Southland Conference player and All-South Region selection.
The coach was gone, too. Love, the national Coach of the Year, left in the spring of 1989 for the University of Southern California.
UTA replaced her with a Division II coach from North Dakota.
George’s head coaching résumé included only two years at tiny North Dakota State, but she was the NCAA Division II Coach of the Year. Before that, she was a Central Michigan assistant and a club coach in Chicago.
Chris Rudiger, UTA’s standout hitter, says the transition from Love to George was a bit rocky. “Cathy had things she felt strongly about that she thought would help us as a team,” Rudiger said. “And we had six seniors who were pretty strong-willed.”
They were talented, too.
Shawn Sweeten, a former SLC Newcomer of the Year, was an accomplished setter and nearing UTA’s top spot in career assists. Rudiger, an Arlington native, was noted for her hard hitting. Anita Allgood and Edrina Pogue were pesky middles who relied on quickness to compensate for their lack of height.
The players didn’t meet their new coach until six weeks before the season began. George didn’t have lofty expectations.
“We were trying to accentuate our strengths and hide the weaknesses,” she said. “We were trying to sharpen up the things we needed to sharpen up.”
From the start, the team knew one thing: Success meant getting past defending national champion U.T. Austin. The Lady Mavericks jokingly called themselves “UTA team” and the Lady Longhorns “UTB team.”
George studied film of three dozen U.T. Austin matches. The two teams met six matches into the season, and U.T. Austin won in five games when UTA blew a 14-9 lead in game four.
The Lady Mavericks won in five a week later, and that, George said, set the attitude for the rest of the season. UTA won 26 of its next 27 matches, including a perfect conference run and an NCAA first-round victory over North Carolina.
Then it was off to Austin again.
UTA drew Louisiana State in the first round of the NCAA regionals. Monique Adams, who would go on to play pro ball, paced the Lady Tigers to a quick two-game advantage.
But George’s team never considered defeat a possibility.
“There was a sense of ‘we can do anything.’ I felt that confidence with that team throughout. We didn’t get all worried about it. It seemed like we always started slowly but finished strong.”
UTA won the next three games, including a one-sided 15-5 finale that meant a rematch with U.T. Austin with a Final Four bid on the line.
The Lady Mavericks won in four games.
“We really had to use the strength of our team,” George said. “I think it was the never-say-die type of attitude. Everybody had something that made this team come together, and everybody was consistent. Everybody trusted the other person.”
Following the match, a poster on the wall that once read “Texas: Hawaii bound” was changed to “Texas-Arlington: Hawaii bound.”
UTA lost its first Final Four match to Long Beach State, which swept Nebraska for the title. At the time, it was a bitter ending.
“Initially, I think we were disappointed,” said Rudiger, now the head volleyball coach at Central High School in Keller. “We were used to winning. We knew we were the underdog, but we were still disappointed that we didn’t beat them.”
George called the season “a fairy tale.”
“It was a tremendous accomplishment,” she said. “This was a great blend of players who came together. Everything just came together at the right time.”
— Danny Woodward