LITTLE KERI NISHIMOTO TOOK OVER FOR A ‘BEACH’ LEGEND

Redlands Connection is a concoction of sports memories emanating from a city that once numbered less than 20,000 people. From the Super Bowl to the World Series, from the World Cup to golf’s U.S. Open and the Olympics, plus NCAA Final Four connections, Tour de France cycling, major tennis, NBA and a little NHL, aquatics and quite a bit more, the sparkling little city that sits around halfway between Los Angeles and Palm Springs on Interstate 10 has its share of sports connections. – Obrey Brown

Misty May, who became a household name along with Olympic beach volleyball companion Kerri Walsh, was part of a Long Beach State legacy so strong that it defied imagination as to the person that would follow her as the school’s setter.

Imagine Garry Maddox taking over center field from Willie Mays in San Francisco.

Or Gene Bartow replacing John Wooden as UCLA basketball coach.

Can anyone remember Phil Bengston? That was the chap that took over as Green Bay Packers’ football coach when Vince Lombardi stepped aside.

May’s replacement in Long Beach?

Long a major collegiate powerhouse, it was the 49ers’ turn in the limelight back in 1997. What must have been running through coach Brian Gimmillaro’s mind, however, was how to replace Misty in his lineup one season later.

He reached out to Redlands High School product Keri Nishimoto, the backup to May on that 1997 squad.

Keri Nishimoto at The Beach
Redlands’ Keri Nishimoto took over as Long Beach State’s high-profile setter and helped lead the 49ers to an NCAA title matchup against Stanford (photo by Long Beach State).

Say what you want about college sports, whether it’s college football or basketball, the sensational play of baseball and softball players, plus track & field, volleyball may well rest among the most exciting of all women’s sports.

It might get lost in the shuffle throughout the USA.

May, who was considered a catalyst for Beach’s 1998 NCAA championship triumph, captured the Honda-Broderick Cup as well as Collegiate Women Athlete of the Year title. May captured more awards and titles than any other collegiate volleyball player. She wound up a USA Olympian – a much-decorated, multiple gold medal winner on the beach.

The Beach’s heir apparent to May, originally, was Brittany Hochevar. They tried to replicate their May experiment with Hochevar. It didn’t seem to go right.

THE ULTIMATE TEAM PLAY

Nishimoto, summoned from Redlands High on a full-ride academic scholarship – she turned down Beach’s offer of an athletic scholarship – was the catalyst in leading Redlands High to a Southern Section Division 3 volleyball title.

In her high school setting, Redlands knocked off area powerhouse Rim of the World from mountainous Lake Arrowhead. The finals were played at Cypress College on a Saturday, which wasn’t all that far from Beach.

Except for Rim of the World, there had been very little prep volleyball success from the so-called Inland Empire area.

Nishimoto, surrounded by college-level talent like Lindsey O’Reilly (Brigham Young University), Gretchen Levander (Hofstra), plus a few other significant cogs in the lineup, namely middle blocker Janiece Memmott and outside hitter Jackie Ostler in addition to a strong defender, Jamie Hackleman.

That lineup turned volleyball around in the I.E. Nishimoto had long since been noticed, but more at the club-playing level than while wearing Lady Terrier colors.

The CIF-Southern Section Division 3 Player of the Year at Redlands, it was Nishimoto who quarterbacked the Lady Terriers to an unforgettable championship performance over powerhouse Rim of the World at Cypress College in 1995.

One year earlier, Nishimoto actually split time with another player. Redlands coach Gene Melcher had co-setters at Redlands.

At The Beach, Nishimoto’s on-court performance seemed to add chemistry. She was small, but dangerous. Mostly a bench-warmer and defensive specialist during the May era, Nishimoto eventually emerged as Beach setter.

Nishimoto already contributed to Beach’s chemistry. Taking that academic scholarship instead of an athletic one allowed Gimmillaro to use that additional athletic stipend to stockpile even more talent. It was, perhaps, the ultimate team play.

In 1999, Nishimoto set a record for assists (14.58), having moved back to a defensive position in 2000 for the Hochevar experiment. Once “little Keri” was moved back to the setter role, the 16th-ranked Lady 49ers began rolling even more.

Over a period of time, there were six All-American setters at Beach.

PART OF A BEACH ARRAY OF SETTERS

The year after Nishimoto’s career concluded, Hochevar shined in 2002 – part of the school’s six All-American setters, which includes Nishimoto in 2001, May in 1997 and ’98, Joy McKienzie in 1993, Sabrina Hernandez in 1991 and ’92, plus Sheri Sanders in 1989.

Misty May
Misty May, a multiple Olympic gold medal beach volleyball champion, preceded Redlands’ Keri Nishimoto as Long Beach State setter in the late 1990s (photo by Wikipedia Commons).

May was selected as the AVCA Player of the Year for Division I in 1997 and 1998, becoming the first player in NCAA and AVCA history to win the award outright in back-to-back campaigns.

Sanders and McKienzie both quarterbacked the 49ers to national championships. Hernandez took The Beach to back-to-back Final Fours (1991-1992).

May led the 49ers to the 1997 Final Four and captained the 1998 squad to a perfect 36-0 mark and a NCAA national championship. Nishimoto mostly rode the bench was celebrating the team title.

Along the way, the list of teams that Nishimoto and The Beach had been beating were among the nation’s richest and glowing programs – Brigham Young, Pittsburgh, UCLA, Arizona, you name it. She totaled 53 assists, 15 digs and three blocks against BYU to lead The Beach to an undefeated regular season record.

v8n48-nishimoto
In action: Long Beach State’s Keri Nishimoto ran the 49ers’ attack on a 33-match winning streak into the 2001 finals against Stanford (photo by Long Beach State).

Nishimoto, a national player of the week in Nov. 2001, was named second-team All-American in 2001. The Beach went 33-1 and reached the NCAA title match – losing only in the championship to Stanford.

On December 15, 2001 in San Diego, Stanford All-American and USA Olympian Logan Tom led the Cardinal to a three-game sweep.

Check out these scores from Cox Arena in San Diego: 31-29, 30-28, 30-25. A Beach team led by Nishimoto’s 34 assists and a team-high nine digs fell after winning 33 straight.

It was Nishimoto’s final collegiate match.

 

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