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Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2006 | The University of San Diego women’s volleyball team’s All-American candidate and West Coast Conference Player of the Year is Kristen Carlson, a 6-foot-2 outside hitter from Purcellville, Va., wherever that is.

Laurel Abrahamson, the 6-foot-4-inch-inch middle hitter who joined Carlson on the All-WCC first team, is from Bloomington, Minn.

Jessica Nyrop, the 5-foot-11-inch sophomore setter who earned All-WCC honorable mention in her first year as a starter, is from Harrison, Idaho.

Christie Dawson is the California girl who joined Carlson and Abrahamson on the All-WCC first team – actually, Dawson is a two-time first-team pick – but the 6-foot-1-inch middle hitter is from Apple Valley. That’s in San Bernardo County, which isn’t exactly a San Diego beach environment.

Andrea Csaszi is the only San Diego girl on the Toreros’ roster who earned WCC honors as a member of the All-Freshman team. The 5-foot-11-inch libero is from Rancho Buena Vista High in Vista, a community east of I-5 that isn’t one of San Diego’s traditional volleyball hotbeds.

So, it may seem a natural for a school such as USD to build a nationally ranked volleyball program in a beach city, but that’s not how the Toreros have done it.

And it may be a constant battle for the San Diego State and USD athletic programs to keep elite local talent at home, but the Toreros haven’t let that stop them in women’s volleyball.

“We want the strong players in San Diego to stay home, but not all the Division I players from San Diego can play for us and there are down years,” said USD interim coach Brent Hilliard, promoted from assistant while head coach Jennifer Petrie takes a family leave of absence. “It’s important that we recruit players who can play at our level of a nationally ranked program in the top 15 or 20. We’re trying to improve every year, and we have to get talent. We want the players from Texas, the East Coast and elsewhere to know about San Diego.”

There was a time when San Diego had an advantage in turning out volleyball athletes, but Title IX has been around long enough that high school girls play the sport at the level of San Diego all across the country. USD recognizes that under Petrie and Hilliard and their predecessor, former head coach Sue Snyder.

It’s a little easier in women’s sports to recruit nationally than in televised men’s sports of football and basketball, where the athletes care about TV appearances more than education, but the point is, USD have made national recruiting pay off.

The Toreros, who also won the WCC title and were 26-6 overall, have advanced to the Sweet Sixteen two of the last three years and the NCAA tournament 11 of the past 12.

You probably missed it – the local newspaper gave USD’s women’s volleyball team a whopping paragraph of print when it beat No. 25 Duke on Dec. 2 in the second round of the NCAA tournament to advance to the Sweet Sixteen – but the Toreros climbed as high as No. 14 before their season came to an end. USD lost to No. 1-ranked Nebraska Friday in the Sweet Sixteen round of the NCAA tournament regional in Gainesville, Fla.

“If we keep continuing to be a top 25 program and keep pushing the envelope, maybe we won’t be overlooked,” Hilliard said. “But it doesn’t matter, because it puts a chip on our shoulder to try and play better. We’re trying to slingshot ourselves into that category where we’re in the last two or three games for the national championship.”

The loss to Nebraska placed the Toreros within the last four games. Two wins in the Gainesville regional would have sent them to the Final Four for the first time. Three Pac-10 teams, UCLA, Stanford and Washington, advanced to the Final Four along with Nebraska.

USD loses dominant players in Carlson and Dawson, but they Hilliard says they have their best recruiting class in his six years with the program on the way. Enrolling in the fall are Kelsi Myers of Winter Park, Colo., and two Californians in Ali Troost of Hemet and Ashton Basch of Lake Forest.

“Our 2007 class was recruited by all the Pac-10 schools, which is renowned as the No. 1 volleyball conference in the country,” Hilliard said. “We’re starting to get those kinds of kids, and as long as we make the Sweet Sixteen and our ranked, we’re going to be able to get those kinds of kids inside and outside of San Diego.

Hilliard expects the incoming recruits to contribute as freshmen, and the Toreros got such immediate results this year from Csaszi.

“Andrea has been one of the most pleasant surprises,” Hilliard said. “About a month into the season, she really raised her level of play. She is not only one of the best passing liberos in our conference, she is becoming one of the best defenders. She has a very good career ahead of her.”

Csaszi may be the exception as a San Diegan on the Toreros’ roster, but don’t let the other hometowns listed fool you. The Toreros are a nationally ranked program with a track record the past decade-plus unlike any other Division I collegiate team in San Diego

Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org’s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions. You can e-mail him at toms@sdhoc.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

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