Westminster volleyball coach Kim Norman really only wanted to know one thing from the players who talked to her about playing for the Griffins.

"She asked me if I knew how to win," said Hunter High graduate Celestial Alofipo, now a freshman outside hitter for the team.

Brittani Willardson, who was an all-state volleyball and basketball player at Richfield High School last year, said it was that line of questioning that sold her on Norman and Westminster.

"She said, 'You better want to win, because we're going to win,' " said the freshman middle blocker. "I liked that attitude, because I'm very competitive."

Norman's strategy for turning a perennial loser into a volleyball power was simple. Take good athletes who were used to winning under the direction of coaches who taught them as much about being good people as they did about being good players and teach them more volleyball technique than they ever knew existed.

The result is a Frontier Conference championship, a No. 5 ranking in the conference, and the opportunity to host the NAIA regional this weekend.

"I'm really proud of them," said Norman. "This has been a Cinderella team, and these kids are on a mission. They're doing it, and they're young and doing it. It's been really, really fun."

The Griffins open this weekend's regional tournament with No. 2 seed Northwest University and Westminster, a fifth seed, Thursday at 9 a.m. The semifinals are scheduled for Friday and the championship is Saturday at 2:30 p.m.

The most remarkable aspects of the turnaround are how it happened in just two years and how Norman did it using exclusively Utah athletes. When Norman took over the program two years ago, the Griffins had won just a single match. Last year they finished 6-18, but with an infusion of local freshmen, the team is making a lot of noise this season.

"I've always known there are a lot of good club volleyball kids in Utah," said Norman, who has coached in college, club and high school for nearly 20 years.

The hardest part of Norman's job wasn't teaching volleyball skills; it was letting players know there were options outside of a division one or junior college program.

"I've lived in Sugar House all my life, and I had never been on this campus," Norman said. "We have a national image, but we don't have a local presence. We need to get the word out that Westminster is here and volleyball is here."

The Griffins' success is no longer a secret after the team, picked to be dead last in its conference, dominated the second half of their conference play and finished with a record of 19-11.

Norman was named coach of the year for the Frontier Conference, and Alofipo and the team's other outside hitter, sophomore Angie Johnson, were named to the all-conference team. Alofipo was named the freshman of the year, and Johnson, a transfer from Eastern Washington University, was named newcomer of the year.

Bree Riet, Monica Shorts and Maxi Miller were named to the honorable mention team for the conference. Setter Monica Shorts, Alofipo and Willardson were named to the conference's all-freshman team.

All of these accolades are being heaped on players who played little or no club volleyball while they were in high school.

"I didn't even know who Kim was, because Richfield is way out there," Willardson said. "I didn't even know about club. I just had no idea."

Riet, the team's libero, was a three-sport athlete from North Sanpete, and Shorts graduated from Carbon High. Norman said players from the smaller classifications might have lacked the club experience many on the Wasatch Front had, but they were solid athletes who were used to winning, and usually without a superstar.

"They were players who just loved the game, and were used to playing in programs where the individual wasn't as important as the team," Norman said. "They're all good students, and they're used to working hard. I don't have the disrespect you might have to deal with in other programs."

The players say Norman has taught them aspects of volleyball they didn't know existed, while they've enjoyed an Ivy League-type education close to home.

"The professors here are intimately involved with all of the students," Norman said. "They know the players; they're concerned, interested and invested."

The players said they see their teachers at every home game, and Norman said she's had to learn to put academics before the sport. The result has been even more dedication from the athletes.

"So far it hasn't been hard," said Norman, who received a commitment from Clearfield's Allison Culp in August. "We've looked; we've asked; they've said yes."

Right side hitter Miller played volleyball and basketball for Panguitch High four years ago but came to Westminster on an academic scholarship.

"This has been fabulous," said Miller, now a senior. "Our turnaround has surprised even players who are on the team. Everyone's learned so much. Even with some of the same players, we're a totally different team."


E-mail: adonaldson@desnews.com