USC, UCLA have tough path to final

LOS ANGELES -- One of this city's volleyball stars, USC's Alex Jupiter, loves to play on the beach and never competed on a high school team.

Another, UCLA's Rachael Kidder, loves country music and rarely goes to the beach because her fair skin might burn.

They are rivals and opposites with the same goal: to win the NCAA championship. Neither of their paths looks easy. USC, the No. 1-ranked team in the American Volleyball Coaches Association Top 25 after winning 20 of its past 21 matches, is seeded seventh overall in the 64-team NCAA tournament, the brackets for which were announced Sunday. If the Trojans advance past the second round, they would play in the Honolulu Regional and potentially would have to beat both Hawaii on its home court and second-seeded Nebraska to reach the semifinals.

Fourth-ranked UCLA, the No. 1 team for two weeks before the Trojans took over in mid-November, is seeded ninth overall, and would potentially have to get past four-time defending champion Penn State in the Lexington Regional.

USC coach Mick Haley and UCLA coach Mike Sealy complained about the role of the computerized Ratings Percentage Index in the seeding for the tournament -- Texas, fifth in the coaches' poll, is the No. 1 seed overall -- but there is nothing to do now but play.

"If you want to win the title, then you have to be able to beat anybody anywhere," said Sealy, in his second year after replacing Bruins legend Andy Banachowski, who led UCLA to six national titles in 43 seasons.

Going back to the days of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, USC and UCLA -- only about a dozen miles apart -- each has won six AIAW or NCAA national volleyball titles. USC last won in 2002 and 2003. UCLA's most recent title was in 1991.

"It's one of the more special things in college volleyball, for sure," said Haley. "It's the only city in the country where two major programs are constantly battling to be No. 1.

"In the 1970s, they would go back and forth, back and forth, and there have been some really great players. It's back there right now, and Sealy has done a great job of getting them back in the hunt."

The Trojans are led by Jupiter, a 6-foot-3 outside hitter and one of three senior All-Americans on the team, along with setter Kendall Bateman and middle blocker Lauren Williams. In the final weeks of the season, Jupiter broke USC's career kills record and Bateman set the mark for career assists.

Besides a name fit for a superhero -- "I like my name. There's just not much to say about it. It's always been my name," Jupiter said -- the Trojans star has an unorthodox background for a Southern California player. Born in France, she came to the United States at 14 with her mother, Nadia Ziani, a former professional volleyball player of Algerian and Croatian heritage. (Jupiter said her father, with whom she is not in contact, has Creole roots, from the Caribbean island of Martinique.)

Alex and her mother settled in Hermosa Beach, where Haley would see her playing volleyball on the sand. "My wife and I would be walking The Strand," Haley said. "It's a way to get away from volleyball and enjoy Southern California, but they keep putting in more courts, and you can't help but notice a player like Alex."

Jupiter wasn't old enough when Haley first saw her play for him to make contact under NCAA rules, but he checked around about her and waited until he could. By the time Jupiter was 16, she qualified as an amateur for the Manhattan Beach event on the Association of Volleyball Players professional beach volleyball tour. She never played for a high school volleyball team, instead choosing to home-school the final two years of high school and play club volleyball. Academics were a struggle, she said.

"I definitely didn't speak much English when I came here," Jupiter said. "I had to try to do my best, but I was failing and having trouble performing in classrooms."

She completed her high school requirements, and she and Haley said she has made her way through USC as a psychology major in part because of the help of academic support programs.

"Alex is pretty special for a number of reasons," Haley said. "She's had a background that would never make you think she'd be able to have success, yet she pretty much has overcome lots of things."

Jupiter's counterpart at UCLA is Kidder, a 6-foot-3 junior outside hitter from Moorpark High in the Los Angeles suburbs. The slender strawberry blonde is a daughter of John Kidder, an offensive lineman who played for UCLA's football team with quarterback Troy Aikman in the 1980s.

The shyness of her freshman season has worn off, and now Kidder helps lead the team on the floor as well as from the front seat of the van on trips. Her musical taste runs to Josh Thompson and other country singers. (She also likes NASCAR.)

"People would be like, 'Turn it off,' at first, but as you get older you get to ride shotgun and you get to control the music," Kidder said.

Her teammates have followed -- some of them, anyway.

"I think Rachael has gotten people on her bandwagon," senior libero Lainey Gera said. "There are a lot more into country now."

Like the Trojans, the Bruins will have to log some major miles -- by plane, not van -- if they are to add another national title to their collection.

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