Nov. 22, 2009

By Justice B. Hill
Special to NCAA.com

UNIVERSITY HEIGHTS, Ohio – Kelly Pang stood still for a short second at midcourt, seemingly glued to the floor as her emotions spun out of control.

Suddenly, she was reaching out and grabbing everybody – or was everybody grabbing her? – dashing here and there to hug friends and family and well-wishers.

Pang and her teammates from Washington University (St. Louis), ahead 2-1 in sets, had just watched a match point go into the net on an errant serve.

So they had reason to let their emotions run freely.

Smiling, the 18-year-old Pang didn’t seem to know immediately what she was supposed to do. She had never won an NCAA championship before; she wasn’t used to the occasion, one all-too common at an elite institution that now has 10 NCAA Division III Volleyball Championships in its trophy case.

Pang had heard about those others. She’d just never been part of them. How could she have been? She was a freshman.

“I don’t know,” she said later, as if not able to put what she and her teammates had done into perspective. “I guess …

Pang couldn’t find the words. She was too giddy, too overwhelmed with joy to easily put her feelings on public display. For a while, all she could do was let her smile speak for her.

Pardon her for not being up to the occasion. It might have been the only time in this three-day tournament at the DeCarlo Varsity Center on the John Carroll University Campus that she wasn’t. She was unflappable. Her play was central to Washington’s win in the championship game.

True enough, the Eagles might have beaten Juniata (36-4) without Pang’s help. Who’s to say? But her role as libero helped the Bears (34-4) generate offense time and again in their 18-25, 26-24, 25-17, 25-21 victory.

She was everywhere on the floor, digging balls that women her senior might have mishandled.

“Kelly is one of the most amazing defensive players I’ve ever played with,” said middle hitter Laura Brazeal, a senior and a member of the Washington’s 2006 championship team. “She’s got such a great attitude, and she brings that positiveness out on the court.”

Pang earned a spot on the All-Tournament team, a deserving honor for how she played. She stood out, although the red jersey she wore as libero made her stand out anyway. For the jersey contrasted with the white of the five teammates on the court with her.

But it wasn’t only the red uniform that kept her in the spotlight. A 5-foot-1 native of Hawaii with long, dark hair and an almond complexion, Pang was impossible to miss. She stood several inches below her taller teammates.

Her short stature betrayed the fact that she was a giant on the floor.

“Kelly came in and dominated from the back court,” said coach Rich Luenemann, who earned his third national title. “There are different facets to playing defense. … But the most important thing you have to do is read all the attackers.

“She reads better than anybody I’ve ever seen. She’s the best backcourt player I’ve ever coached in my life.”

His compliment made Pang blush. She wasn’t expecting it at that moment. She seemed too preoccupied with the flood of emotions that coursed through her.

Besides, Kelly Pang had more people to hug, including her parents. They had flown in from Hawaii to be here for their daughter.

“They were able to come to Regionals and they were able to come to Cleveland,” she said. “It was great to share that with them.”