Both are long shots to win, with the Bears (18-14) traveling to Lincoln to meet No. 3-ranked Nebraska (28-1) and the Retrievers (22-6) dispatched to Los Angeles, where they'll play No. 10 Southern California (22-5).
But while UMBC is caught up in the excitement of it all going into its late-night match, Morgan State, which plays at 8: 30 p.m., is taking a more down-to-earth approach.
Last season, Morgan made the tournament, becoming the first historically black college to qualify. It lost to USC in three quick games. The Bears are of a mind to do a bit better this time.
Dorothy Buford, who was named to the all-MEAC first team this season, said a factor last year was that the team was prepared for the worst.
"A lot of us went in thinking that we're going to lose," said Buford, an outside hitter who played on last year's team as a freshman. "There were a lot of butterflies. This year, we have a lot more confidence."
They also have a little bit more focus than last year.
"It was all so new," Buford said of the initial NCAA experience. "You're so overwhelmed. Everybody was like, 'We're near Warner Brothers Studio.' Even if we were going to Hawaii, I don't think we'd be of that same mind-set."
Even so, the first-time complex will apply to at least one of Morgan's players. Middle blocker JaNina Lee will be playing in her first NCAA tournament game after sitting out all of last season with a torn ACL.
"I'm extremely excited," said Lee, a middle blocker from Bedford Hills, N.Y., and Morgan State's all-time leader in service aces and blocks. "To play in a national tournament, how many African-Americans can say that they had a chance to play on a national-tournament volleyball team [at a historically black college]?"
The biggest challenge for Morgan State will be stopping the attack of Nebraska, which made the regional finals last season and won the national title in 1995. The Cornhuskers, Big 12 champions, are led by Nancy Meendering and Megan Korver, who have combined for eight kills per game.
The Bears will be playing in front of a sellout crowd of 5,000, an alien occurrence for them.
"Between your freshman and senior year, you might play in front of 5,000 people -- but not at the same time," said Morgan coach Ramona Riley-Bozier.
In Catonsville, the Retrievers' mood has leaned toward the giddy, despite the best efforts of their coach, Catherine Lavery.
Among the team's three leaders -- LaNae Baker, Lisa Cline and Megan McNamara -- the discussion has drifted at times to what they might do for recreation on the day after their match, a subject that did not sit well with Lavery, considering UMBC could be playing on Saturday.
"We're going to stay focused," said the coach, in her ninth season at UMBC. "I'll give them some free time, but we need to remember why we're here."
The senior trio can be forgiven for momentarily losing sight of priorities. After making an NCAA play-in game as freshmen, then serving two years as Big South champs only to lose in conference tournaments, the Retrievers earned an automatic bid by winning the Northeast Conference tournament last month.
"I couldn't think of a better way of ending our four years here," McNamara said. "This is everything we've ever wanted."
For Baker, from La Mirada, Calif., the trip is a homecoming and the game will be played about 20 minutes from where she grew up. Her parents are the only ones of her family and friends who have seen her play at UMBC in 129 matches.
"My brother's never seen me play in college," said Baker. "The rest of my family never had a chance to see me play, so I'm really excited about that."
UMBC goes into tonight's game handicapped by a rotator-cuff injury to Cline, the NEC's Most Valuable Player this year and the Big South's MVP last year. "I wish God had waited one more [match]," said Cline, who will play, anyway.
Cline's injury only makes the Retrievers bigger underdogs against USC, winner of 18 of its last 20 matches. The Women of Troy are led by Jennifer Kessy, the school's all-time leader in kills, and Jasmina Marinkovic, the school's all-time leader in blocks.
Lavery has tried to counter USC's edge through positive thought and preparation.
"If I stay positive, the whole team stays positive -- we believe we have a fighting chance," Lavery said. "We've tried to provide them with every scenario."
Because USC is a larger team, the Retrievers practiced with the men's club team at UMBC in anticipation of an attack more fierce than any they've faced.
"Playing with the guys helps; we haven't played a good team for a month and a half," Baker said. "We know that they're going to hit the ball hard, harder than any team we've seen."
Pub Date: 12/04/98