Tuesday, October 25, 2005 | Oh, to have a Top 25 college team to follow in San Diego. Our sports town lacks such a college atmosphere, and the lament seems especially appropriate after last weekend.

San Diego State football, with Saturday night’s discouraging 47-24 loss to New Mexico at Qualcomm Stadium, wasted an opportunity to win over the city’s fans sitting on the fence. Basketball season isn’t far off, so maybe SDSU basketball can earn a Top 25 ranking by living up to the Aztecs’ preseason favorite tag in the Mountain West Conference.

But if we look beyond televised sports, we actually do have a Top 25 team to follow. The University of San Diego’s women’s volleyball program has put together a decade-plus of national prominence on its Alcala Park campus.

-The Toreros advanced to the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 a year ago after winning the West Coast Conference title;

-They are seeking a fifth straight NCAA Tournament appearance and have advanced to the NCAA in nine of the past 12 seasons;

-They were ranked No. 12 in last year’s final national poll and have been ranked in the Top 25 the past six seasons;

-Their lineup features All-American players, with senior setter Lindsey Sherburne a third-team choice last year by the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA);

-Their seventh-year head coach, Jennifer Petrie, a San Diegan from Mt. Carmel High, was the WCC Coach of the Year in 2004.

The Toreros are ignored by local television stations and relegated to small print in the back of local newspapers largely because American sports fans have become simpletons in this television age. To paraphrase Faye Dunaway’s character in the movie “Network,” “If it wasn’t on TV, it didn’t happen.”

What is happening this weekend are USD home matches against Loyola Marymount Friday night and Pepperdine Saturday night at Jenny Craig Pavilion.

“If you come out to a University of San Diego volleyball match,” says Petrie, now in her seventh season as the Toreros’ head coach, “you’re going to see great competition, great athletes and a high level of volleyball. We have players who are great role models for young athletes.”

USD (15-4 overall, 4-3 WCC) is one of two conference schools ranked in the Top 25 and one of five to earn a national ranking in the preseason or regular season. USD is No. 20 in the AVCA poll. Santa Clara has climbed to No. 12, while Pepperdine, Loyola Marymount and St. Mary’s are unranked after earlier gaining Top 25 recognition.

USD was ranked as high as No. 15 two weeks ago, but that was before a leg injury suffered by outside hitter Kristen Carlson led to losses in two of the Toreros’ last three matches. USD lost at then-No. 14 Santa Clara Oct. 15 and St. Mary’s Oct. 21.

Carlson, a 6-foot-2 junior, was No. 8 in the nation in kills per game (5.45) before she was injured in the first game of the Santa Clara match. Think how excited fans would be over a football or basketball player ranked that high in a key statistical category.

Although San Diego is a hotbed for girls’ high school volleyball, Petrie and her staff have built their Top 25 program despite being forced to recruit far and wide for talent. Most of San Diego’s elite high school athletes – in volleyball as well as other sports – elect to leave the area, where they can play in a college atmosphere before bigger crowds.

Nebraska senior Jennifer Saleaumua, a Bonita Vista High graduate, leads the No. 1-ranked Cornhuskers as an outside hitter. Even Torrey Pines High alumnus Rachell Johnson, a UCLA sophomore, couldn’t be convinced to stay at home, although her father is a USD professor.

“We’ve tried to recruit the player from Minnesota or other places that wants to come to San Diego,” Petrie said. “We’ve found the school recruits itself if we can just get a recruit on campus.”

Carlson, who is from Virginia, accepted a scholarship from Washington State over the Toreros before transferring to USD in 2004.

The Toreros hope Carlson can return to the lineup from her injury in time for the NCAA Tournament next month. That alone is a statement.

How many of our town’s collegiate teams expect to still be playing in the postseason?

Tom Shanahan has been writing about San Diego athletes at the professional, collegiate and high school levels for 27 years. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions (

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