By Kerri Walsh
Pro beach volleyball player

'Tis the season - and what a season this year brings.

It is the 25th anniversary of the NCAA women's volleyball championships. I can't help but be excited for the women who are on the court in San Antonio and admire the progress that female student-athletes have made during the past 25 years.

What started very quietly in 1981 has resulted in avid popularity. The first women's volleyball championships had minimal media coverage. The games are now televised nationwide and covered in major daily newspapers and sports magazines.

The awareness of, and participation in, women's college sports has grown markedly because of barriers kicked down during these past 25 years. Today, more than 150,000 female student-athletes participate in intercollegiate athletics and compete for a total of 44 NCAA championships in 20 sports.

Thanks to the NCAA and a host of supporters backing women's sports, a generation of women has grown up with its sights set on winning national collegiate titles - while earning academic degrees and developing life skills that will help them long after their time in college. Young girls today can't imagine life any other way. What a tribute this is to our progress.

My four years of playing Division I volleyball at Stanford University taught me this: Take advantage of today, make a difference, smile, work hard, dream big, and you will see positive results. I had no idea that the rewards would continue long after my graduation in 2000.

The physical and mental preparation to be a successful student-athlete helped prepare me for several stages of my life - from playing with Team USA in Sydney during the 2000 Olympic Games, to crossing over to beach volleyball, going on the AVP Tour and bringing home the gold medal in women's beach volleyball with my teammate, Misty May, at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.

But the rewards haven't stopped there.

Last month the NCAA named its Division I Women's Volleyball 25th Anniversary Team. It is an amazing honor to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with a team of women who, like me, have experienced the thrill of bringing home a national collegiate title within this short lifespan of NCAA volleyball championships. All the women named to this NCAA anniversary team have gone on to inspire and lead young women on - and off - the court.

That's what I'm reminded of when I tune in to this year's NCAA women's volleyball championships. I wonder if people realize the sacrifices and effort these young women, and the ladies before them, have put in on a daily basis, working toward excellence.

The reason most of these women are here is because they want to excel in academics, earning college degrees they can be proud of. They want to graduate knowing they gave it their all, pushing themselves to be the best students and the best athletes they could be. They are excellent role models because they work incredibly hard and know what it takes to achieve success.

I am so inspired when I watch women's volleyball today, with the competition getting more and more intense. Regardless of which team wins the national title, it's great to see the degree of commitment exhibited by these gifted young women, their level of athletic excellence and the support shown by their schools and fans, elevated to today's new heights. I can't wait to see what the next 25 years bring.

-- Courtesy San Antonio Express News