Oct. 2, 2008
By Dave Reed
Special to ESPN.com
The Pepperdine women's volleyball team is undefeated and on a steady rise in the national rankings, due in large part to the leadership and play of senior outside hitter Julie Rubenstein.
The Waves began the season just outside the Ameican Volleyball Coaches Association Top 25, but have used victories over Colorado State (then ranked No. 17), Oregon State (Pac-10) and Missouri (Big 12) to make their climb in the poll. Pepperdine has lost only three sets all season, but was forced to a fifth set in a match on Sept. 7.
With the match on the line at Oregon State, the Waves huddled up before the fifth set and Rubenstein calmly directed her team to stay focused on the play on its side of the court.
Then Rubenstein did what she does best: She led by example. Seven of her match-high 31 kills came in the fifth set, including the final three to nail down the victory.
"She made some incredible plays," Pepperdine coach Nina Matthies said. "I'm not sure it was so much verbal as it was her body language. It was like she said, 'I'm going to put these balls away with a flair.' There was an air of confidence about her that night."
Rubenstein has been the team's go-to player for more than three seasons. With a powerful swing and a lethal serve, she literally scores points in waves.
Rubenstein averages 4.46 kills per game, which ranks first in the West Coast Conference and eighth nationally. She also leads the conference averaging 0.47 service aces per game and is sixth with a .363 hitting percentage.
While leading Pepperdine to four tournament titles -- and a perfect 12-0 record, just one win shy of tying the Waves' record for the best start to a season -- Rubenstein has earned four consecutive Most Valuable Player awards.
That type of performance was hardly unexpected. During her first three seasons, Rubenstein quickly developed into one of the most dynamic players in the West Coast Conference and in Pepperdine history.
She ranks among the Waves' career leaders in seven statistical categories, including fourth with 1,471 kills and sixth with 99 service aces. Her averages of 4.85 points and 4.07 kills per game rank fourth and fifth, respectively.
The two-time first-team all-West Coast Conference selection and 2008 All-America candidate will likely join Nicole Sanderson (1994 to 1997) as the only players to lead the Waves in kills all four years of their careers.
"My first two years, it was more leading by example," Rubenstein said. "I've really tried to become more of a vocal leader these past two years. Especially this year with three freshmen and other younger players on the court, it's been even more important for me to be more of a vocal leader."
While leading by example came naturally for Rubenstein, her commitment to becoming a better leader off the court has had a positive impact on the Waves this season.
Her leadership skills were enhanced by participating in the school's Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, an organization that brings student-athletes together to discuss NCAA legislation and offer input on the rules and regulations that affect the lives and careers of student-athletes.
Rubenstein serves as a co-president of Pepperdine's SAAC, along with teammate Cassi Chamberlain. She also is on the conference committee and is the first representative from Pepperdine to serve at the national level. In that capacity, she has traveled to conferences in Minneapolis and Nashville.
"Being involved with SAAC has made me a better leader on the court," Rubenstein said. "It's a big position and I've had to step out of my comfort zone. That's stretched me in a lot of good ways."
That maturity and personal growth is something Matthies, now in her 26th season on the Malibu, Calif., campus, had been anxiously awaiting since she recruited Rubenstein.
"She's developed as a leader and as a confident young woman, doing all kinds of things all over the country," Matthies said. "It's been an ongoing growth and development like college is supposed to be."
Along with fellow senior captains Caitlin Lawson and Chamberlain, Rubenstein's leadership has been especially important this season. The Waves have three freshmen in the starting lineup and their assimilation into the program is one of the primary reasons the Waves have climbed all the way to No. 15 in the latest AVCA Top 25.
As a group, outside hitter Lilla Frederick, middle blocker Kim Hill and libero Stevi Robinson were a consensus top-10 recruiting class this season. While their talent was unmistakable, how quickly they could adjust to the collegiate game and college life would have a major impact on how good Pepperdine would be.
"I remember being close to a couple of seniors when I was a freshman and how much that meant to me," said Rubenstein, who hails from Camarillo, Calif. "They took the time to talk to me and show me the ropes. I wanted to do the same for this year's freshmen."
Hill, who also took visits at several Pac-10 schools, met Rubenstein on a recruiting visit at Pepperdine prior to her junior year of high school. The two struck up a friendship that helped ease the transition on campus and on the court when the Oregon native arrived in Southern California.
"She took me under her wing, introduced me to different organizations on campus and taught me the ways around Pepperdine," Hill said. "It's been great."
Rubenstein knew that for her team to be successful, the freshmen would have to live up to their lofty expectations. And through the first 12 matches, no one involved with the Pepperdine program has been disappointed.
In fact, they are drawing comparisons to the 1998 class that featured Lindsay Phillips, Melissa Plass and Melissa Snow, who helped lead the Waves to the third round of the NCAA Tournament.
"That group was a pretty intense group of young kids to come in and make an impact," Matthies said. "These freshmen are probably even more seasoned."
Their addition has made Rubenstein a more effective player. Hill, who hits at a .329 clip and averages 1.9 kills per game, gives the Waves another weapon on the attack. Robinson, who averages a team-leading 4.28 digs per game, and Frederick, who averages 2.45 kills and 2.89 digs, help ignite the Pepperdine attack.
"Our ball control is just amazing with Lilla and Stevi on the court," Matthies said. "They are really fast and quick. They make a lot of things happen that allow other people to be great. Their defense has helped Julie with her hitting. Our passing has been tremendous, so we have four people coming at you all the time."
Still, when the match is on the line, you can look for Rubenstein to get the big kill -- just as she did in the thriller at Oregon State.
Since then, Pepperdine has won six consecutive matches without losing a set. On Thursday night, the Waves will go for their record-tying 13th consecutive victory when they open WCC play with the first of three consecutive road matches at Saint Mary's College.
"We have confidence, but we know the first weekend is going to be tough," Rubenstein said. "We could potentially be making or breaking history, and that's exciting."