Tarah Murrey's improvement sparks Cal

KANSAS CITY -- Tarah Murrey recalls being a freshman at Cal and getting Carli Lloyd as a prematch pepper partner. Murrey was, she readily acknowledges, rather intimidated.

"A lot of people are of her," Murrey said of the Bears' intense, accomplished and business-like setter. "And I remember talking to my mom, saying, 'I can't pepper with her! She scares me!'

"But we have grown so much closer. Now, I can really call that girl one of my best friends."

It's pretty smart on the part of outside hitters, of course, to be good pals with their setters. But for Murrey, a junior from El Cerrito, Calif., and Lloyd, a senior setter from Bonsall, Calif., the friendship has developed as both realized their differences were not so consequential when compared to their passion for volleyball.

Both were named to the American Volleyball Coaches Association All-American first team Wednesday, as they prepared for their program's second Final Four appearance.

The first was in 2007, when the Bears fell to Penn State in the semifinals as the Nittany Lions started their run of what has been three consecutive NCAA titles. This has been sort of an emotional breakthrough year for Cal; the Bears defeated Stanford twice in the regular season and won the Pac-10 title.

Now, for a chance to become the fifth different school from the Pac-10 to win the women's volleyball national championship, Cal must first defeat a three-time NCAA champ, league rival USC, in the second of Thursday's semifinals (ESPN2, 9:30 p.m. ET).

The Women of Troy had Cal's number during the regular season, beating the Bears twice. Now it's up to Murrey, Lloyd and the rest of the Bears to reverse that. And Murrey said it really comes down to Cal's being able to more or less riff longer than its opponents.

Think of Cal volleyball as a little like jazz. It isn't just 1-2-3: pass, set, kill. You can't really think in those terms against the best teams -- and in the Pac-10, those are the kinds of teams you're almost always facing.

You have to be prepared both to end points quickly or keep them going as long as necessary to get the right opportunity to finish them.

The Bears, with a bit of embarrassment, call this forcing the opponent to "just play volleyball." Cal is a brainiac school, after all, so they'd probably prefer a more erudite phrase.

But it means the Bears will stick with you, block for block and dig for dig, until they are able to come out on top. No, they don't win every point … but they've sure won a ton of them. They are the lone team here in the Final Four that has yet to lose a set in this tournament despite playing in what most everyone rated as the toughest of the four regionals.

For how well she is thriving with that "don't press when you don't have the advantage" approach, Murrey gives a lot of credit to assistant coach Sam Crosson, in his first season with the Bears.

"He's done such a good job of training me mentally to be a good attacker," Murrey said. "He told me at the beginning of spring practice, 'Tarah, you need to learn how to be patient.'

"And I'm looking at him, like, 'I want to blast the ball every single time. I don't know what you're talking about.' It took me about five months to really understand what he was saying: Not every ball is going to be a killable ball."

Sure, there are times when Murrey will need to make something out of nothing; all hitters face those situations. But she also now knows when the right strategy is to keep the ball in play until the opening is there.

"When Carli does give me the go-to set," Murrey said, "and I can see that there is a split block, then by all means, rip it. But when there's an off play, you have to put it in the court. You can't just go crazy and swing."

Nobody who's watched the 6-foot-3 Murrey ever doubted she could swing with the best of them. But she's learned about the reads, the finesse, the patience -- those are the parts of her game she's added to the pyrotechnics.

"Murrey has been a dynamo," USC coach Mick Haley said. "Previous years, she'd start out gangbusters, but kind of have a little dry period in the middle. But she doesn't seem to have taken a step back all year long."

Murrey is averaging 5.16 kills per set. Cal coach Rich Feller said Murrey's improvement between her sophomore and junior year is a product of plain, old-fashioned sweat.

"Tarah made a conscious decision to get herself better," Feller said. "This was not a magic pill. This was a lot of hours of hard work by her, away from the team at times.

"So we changed some things with our team. We quickened up the offense, changed the defense to more of an athletic type. Those things just fit right in with what Tarah had done. It all worked together for a very nice result."

And now, there's probably nobody that Murrey would rather play prematch pepper with besides Lloyd. In fact, Murrey is dreading that, at most, she has just two more matches to play with Lloyd for Cal.

"We have gone through a lot of stuff together, ups and downs," Murrey said. "She knows me very well as a hitter and a person. Playing volleyball with her has been amazing. I don't want it to end."

Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

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