Dec. 15, 2011
By Amy Hughes
The future of UCLA women's volleyball came to Westwood in 2010.
First, Michael Sealy was named head coach on February 10 of that year. A few weeks later, current senior Lauren Van Orden finalized plans to come to UCLA after playing her first two seasons at San Diego State.
UCLA did not have a returning starting setter, as 2009 freshman starter Lauren Cook decided to return to Nebraska and play for her father, Husker head coach John Cook. That opened the door for Van Orden.
"When the season is over, everyone that is looking to transfer is making connections, and there are phone calls and emails," said Sealy. "Lauren sent a video tape, so I watched a DVD of her playing for San Diego State against Utah. I saw her make one amazing set, and I knew that if she could make that set, then she could do anything. So we offered her the opportunity to come here, and the rest has been history."
Last season, Van Orden set the Bruins to a 22-9 record and an NCAA second-round appearance. This season, the Van Orden-led Bruins have spent time as the nation's top-ranked team and are appearing in the program's first National Semifinal since 2006, where they will face Florida State tonight at 4 p.m. PT in San Antonio, Texas. The match will be broadcast live on ESPN2 and online at ESPN3.com.
"Coming into a program with such a history of excellence, a program that just had Nellie Spicer on the team, is a little daunting," said Van Orden.
Junior All-America outside hitter Rachael Kidder is now one of Van Orden's top targets and clearly remembers Van Orden's transition to UCLA.
"When she first got here, she wasn't really the most outgoing person," said Kidder. "It made it a little hard to be her teammate because she can be intimidating. She was clearly really serious about volleyball, but wasn't that outgoing."
"I think it took a while for players and staff to understand Lauren," said Sealy. "Sometimes she was so serious and she was so hard on herself that people didn't understand that it was just her thing and it was OK. Sometimes it affected other players because they didn't understand and thought `did I do something wrong?' As soon as we learned to understand each other, we realized that [Lauren] is just really competitive. That's what she does and that's OK."
Van Orden's competitive fire comes from her family background.
"My dad has high expectations for me," said Van Orden. "He was really traditional in the sense that you work very hard. You put a lot of effort into things and if they turn out well that's great, but if not you keep on truckin', you keep going. You keep your head down and focus on the work ahead of you."
As Van Orden and the Bruins have gotten to know each other, the team chemistry has improved along with the team's performance on the volleyball court.
"We're more comfortable around each other," said Van Orden of this year compared to her first season at UCLA. "We're still trying to figure out the best way to communicate and the best way to approach each other, but we're in the later stages in the development. That has come with a lot more mental struggles, but it's something the team has handled well. We are getting through that together and fighting through the process."
"Once I got to know [Lauren] more, and all of the girls got to know her more on a personal level, she definitely opened up on the court," said Kidder. "Now, she's such a great leader. She holds people accountable. She inspires people to work hard because of her work ethic. She works so hard that everyone wants to be on her level. She doesn't lead by telling people things, she leads by example."
As that comfort level has translated into on-court success, UCLA's women's volleyball fans have seen what Sealy saw on that initial DVD.
"She made the difficult thing look easy," said Sealy. "A lot of times, people are so concerned about being flashy that they make the easy stuff look difficult. [On that tape], she made a very dynamic play and made it really routinely. I knew that if she could make the difficult play look easy, she was going to be a good solid steady setter."
This season, Van Orden is averaging just under 11 assists per set, having started in 30 of the 33 matches she's played. An honorable mention All-Pac-12 selection, she earned All-Regional Team honors in Lexington, Ky. last weekend as the Bruins swept four-time defending NCAA Champion Penn State before ousting top-seeded Texas from NCAA Tournament play.
"I don't think I appreciated the struggle last year the way I have this year," said Van Orden. "That's the biggest change. This year, I've been able to sit back and appreciate the process and just say `OK, it was a bad day today,' and move on. There's always something you can get better at, whether it's the mental development or physical. Every day presents new challenges. At first, it was a little daunting, but it's definitely been enjoyable the last couple of months."
"She definitely holds herself to a very high standard and pushes to achieve that standard," said Sealy. "I always tell her that's her strength and her weakness. It pushes her to get better, but at the same time, sometimes her standard is too unrealistic. All of a sudden, one set that she misses out of 100, she's upset about that one. Now it's letting her focus on achieving an attainable goal, which she's become good at."
"It's something that I worked on over the summer coming into this season," said Van Orden. "I can't control how other players do. I'll never be able to control the outcome. But I can control the effort that I put into it and my mentality going into it. In that way, I've never let myself down. I know I can be the hardest worker out there. I know my work ethic. It's something that I've always been able to rely on throughout my career."
Those attainable goals have piled up, leading to a trip to this weekend's National Semifinals. Van Orden's relationships with her teammates have solidified, both on and off of the volleyball court.
"She has become more than a teammate to me," said Kidder. "We've become really good friends over the last two years. She's someone that I can trust with anything off the court. I can go to her for advice, I can go to her for help and I know she'll always be there for me and any of her other teammates."
As her Bruin career concludes in San Antonio this weekend, Van Orden can see how much she has grown during her two seasons at UCLA.
"I've been really fortunate," said Van Orden. "I've gotten some of the best coaching there is around. I've become a player I never dreamed about being. Not only that, but I've become a better person. I'm a better person leaving this program. I'm more adept at dealing with struggles and dealing with change. I think that's what I'll take away."