SAN ANTONIO, Texas – For the first three sets, Sara Sage stood at the edge of the Alamodome court and watched.

“It was just so surreal being in this arena and having this opportunity. It was just awesome,” the UCLA senior middle blocker from Huron, Ohio, said. “It was just up and down and up and down and then someone would get a lead and then lose it. Even though I wasn’t on the court, emotionally I felt like I was.”

UCLA led 2-1 after winning the third set, but first-year assistant coach Dan O’Dell went over to second-year head coach Michael Sealy and told him that it was time to make a change. Normally, if Sage was put in, it would be for freshman Zoe Nightingale. This time, O’Dell thought she should go for Brazilian sophomore Marianna Aquino, who had four kills in 11 attempts.

Photo Gallery
Interactive Bracket
Printable Bracket

The move paid off in a big way. Sage took seven swings in the fourth set, got kills on six of them for a .857 hitting percentage, touched a few balls defensively at the net, had a dig, and soon after UCLA was hoisting the title trophy after a 25-23, 23-25, 26-25, 25-16 victory Saturday night in the NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship.

“That’s kind of been my position the whole season. Whenever they call my name,” Sage said, snapping her fingers, “I’m ready.”

Sage, who played more than a year in high school with a broken bone in her leg had three subsequent knee surgeries, also had shoulder surgery last spring. She laughed when recalling that the coaches told her she was going in against Illinois right before the fourth game started.

“I was like, ‘All right, let’s do this.’ It’s pretty exciting.”

“She’s somebody who had the mindset of getting the ball over the net no matter what,” said UCLA senior setter Lauren Van Orden, who had four kills, 17 digs and five block assists of her own. “She wanted the ball in every situation. She really went after it.”

“That was the spark that probably opened up some of the pin hitters, as well,” Sealy said.

His Illinois counterpart, Kevin Hambly, agreed.

“It was a good change of pace for them,” Hambly said. “I felt like we were doing a nice job on Marian and that was a good move by Mike to put here in there. They got some production in the middle going and we couldn’t just take off and go to the outside, which we were doing. I thought it was a great move and she got some kills and kept us honest. There’s a reason they were siding out [in the fourth set] at 82 percent."

The other big surprise for UCLA was the play of Nightingale, whose line showed eight kills in 20 attempts for a .250 hitting percentage, a match- and career-high 10 block assists and one solo block.

“Zoe had a great match and she blocked well,” Hambly said.

“I usually get nervous before games and for the last week I haven’t felt any nerves at all. It’s bizarre,” said Nightingale, a 6-foot-3 product of Sacramento.

She admitted she was happy to stay in the match and was just as happy to see Sage, who was a starter for much of her career.

“Everyone really trusts when Sara goes in that she’s going to get kills, because she does every time,” Nightingale said. “I was really happy that she was on the court for the last point of her senior year.”

UCLA junior outside hitter Rachel Kidder was named the tournament’s most outstanding player after a 20-kill performance. Junior outside hitter Tabi Love added 14 kills and junior Bojana Todorovic had some spectacular defensive plays while getting 18 digs and was one of the Bruins who served extremely effectively, although UCLA had just two aces and no errors. Illinois, rather, was hurt by having 11 errors that more than offset four aces.

It added up to UCLA’s fourth championship and first in 20 years. The Bruins won in 1984, 1990 and 1991, the last when former assistant coach Jeanne Beauprey [Reeves] was pregnant with sophomore Kelly Reeves, who had seven kills, 16 digs, three block assists and just seemed to make timely touches all match long, especially in the first two sets.

“I thought Kelly Reeves and Bojana, they were flying all over the place and making plays all over the place,” Hambly said. “It was hard to score high flat off the top of the block because they were picking up the entire end line.”

And you could probably give a big assist to the 40-year-old Sealy, the national coach of the year who claimed to have turned the tide for the Bruins late last month by cutting his hair.

That’s kind of been my position the whole season. Whenever they call my name, I'm ready.”
-- UCLA middle blocker Sara Sage

At end of the regular season, UCLA lost in five at Oregon, beat Oregon State, lost in three at home to Arizona, swept Arizona State but ended the regular slate with a four-set match to USC. That ensured that UCLA finished second to the Trojans in the Pac-12 and meant that neither finalist won their respective conferences, because Illinois tied with Purdue for second in the Big Ten behind Nebraska.

“We were in a terrible losing streak,” Sealy said. “We’d lost three of five. The old superstitious baseball kid in me knew you had to get the slumpbuster in and that was the slumpbuster.”

Kidder isn’t sure about any of it.

“When he first started growing it out, I was like, ‘Dude, I don’t like it.’ And then once it got longer and he started putting it up in a little bun thing, as long as he keeps it up it’s good. But I definitely like it better short like it is now.”

Same for Sage.

“He looks a lot better with it cut,” she said.

Regardless, UCLA (30-6) has won six in a row – the only six that matter – since he cut his hair. The Bruins’ run in the NCAA tournament saw them sweep Maryland-Eastern Shore, take San Diego in four sets, shock everyone with a three-set sweep of Penn State, and then got the volleyball world’s attention by upsetting Texas in Austin, 3-1. Thursday, UCLA swept Florida State in the national semifinals.

How did he feel?

“Numb,” Sealy said, glancing down at Kidder, who brought the championship trophy with her to the post-match news conference.

“Like that Rachel stole that thing at the end of the table and we’re going to get in trouble. It just hasn’t set in yet.

“I haven’t even celebrated the Penn State yet. I’ve still got to get through Penn State and Texas. Those are still surreal. Even when we were up 23-11 or something like that I’m looking at the scoreboard and thinking, ‘We’ve got to score real points. We’ve got to score real points. It’s too close.’

“It’s like I told the girls coming here that sooner or later the national-championship aura wears off. For this season, you may remember the match or the last point, but you’re gonna remember the bus rides. You’re gonna remember rooming with Kelly Reeves on the road and did she really say that kind of stuff.”

They all laughed.

“It’s the human element of what we created and the experiences we shared. It was just unreal,” Sealy said.

He talked about not sleeping during the tournament for more than a few hours at time and “wheels are spinning and your mind’s spinning and you’re trying to figure things out. And last night it was strange, there was this sense of detachment where I realized that I loved these guys and we’ve had an amazing experience and the match was not going to define us. It’s transient and it just doesn’t stay and it’s just not lasting. And I was gonna be OK with whatever happened.”

Whatever happened, of course, ultimately defined the 2011 UCLA Bruins as NCAA champions. Regardless of the coach’s hair.

“They hated it long,” Sealy said, making his players laugh again. “Which means I’ll probably grow it back long.”

And everyone laughed again.