October 18, 2011

Judy Bellomo Left a Song in Coach's Heart

By MARK PATTON NEWS-PRESS SENIOR WRITER




Several UCSB coeds began a soulful, a capella version of the national anthem on Saturday night at the Thunderdome, but Kathy Gregory couldn't help but hear something else.

She was getting the echo of a single, raspy voice singing along to the radio on a van ride home from some volleyball match of long ago.

The Gauchos' long-time coach knows that she's going to be hearing Judy Bellomo for the rest of her life.

"She had no voice left, because she had been talking to and encouraging and cheering on her teammates for that whole match," Gregory said. "She was so hoarse, but she was still trying to sing along to the radio, and it sounded so cute.

"There were only two people who'd have no voice left after those matches. ... Me and her."

Whenever the 66-year-old Gregory feels like she has nothing left, she remembers Judy and soldiers on. It's been that way ever since the day in January of 1990 when the All-America girl from Glendale died unexpectedly at age 23.

UCSB remembered her on Saturday when it unveiled Bellomo as the newest Legend of the Dome, unfurling her banner next to those of Gregory and fellow All-American Roberta Gehlke in the rafters of the Thunderdome.

"I've never had a girl who mirrored my personality and competitive spirt and will to win more than her," Gregory told a Thunderdome crowd that included many members of Bellomo's family. "I think I stand before you now after 38 years of coaching because that's the girl that gives me hope every day."

It was a good day in 1984 when the Gauchos rallied to beat an upstart UNLV team that was led by a freshman named Bellomo.

"They had won the first two games, and I kept saying, 'Look at how competitive that girl is!'" Gregory said. "After we came back to beat them, I went up to Judy - I wanted to tell her how good she was, but all she could say was, 'We should've won! I'm so mad!'

"I told her that she was my type of player, and she said, 'I sent you a letter when I was in high school ... Don't you remember?' "

When Gregory got back to her office, she dug deep into her files and found the hand-written letter from the former Glendale High star.

"I believe in karma, and I think the reason that UNLV dropped volleyball the next year was so she could come play for me," she said. "They brought back their program seven or eight years later, but it was meant to be that she would come here."

Bellomo was hardly a superstar when she arrived at UCSB in 1986. At 5-foot-10, she was an undersized middle blocker, she had a mediocre serve and she didn't even pass well enough to play in the back row.

"She could really jump, though, and her arm swing was OK, and she was such a great team player that she did help us get to the NCAAs," Gregory recalled. "But after that season, she came up to me and asked, 'What can I do to become the very best player?'

"I told her that if she had the right work ethic, and could handle this very rigorous training regimen that I'd plan for her every day, she could get there."

For the entire offseason, Bellomo did whatever Gregory asked. She would train for several hours, and then accompany her coach to the courts of East Beach for several more grueling hours.

"She never missed a day, even though I'd get us a court with really deep sand, and would be so hard on her," Gregory said. "I'd play her for three or four games, run her around and get her really tired, and not give in to her. She'd eventually scream, 'I hate this game!'

"I'd tell her, 'Some day, you'll thank me for this, and you're going to love this game.' And one day, she did."

Bellomo improved her passing and serving, and got her jump up to an astounding 10-2. By that autumn, she was pounding away at the best teams in NCAA volleyball, ripping 32 kills one night against UCLA, and then 32 more against San Diego State.

By the end of the 1987 season, she had racked up 729 kills, the most in Gaucho history by several hundred. It would've been a Big West Conference record if Long Beach State's Tara Cross hadn't put down 739 that same season. In one year, Bellomo had gone from volleyball nobody to first-team All-American - the first in UCSB women's volleyball history - while leading the Gauchos to a No. 12 national ranking.

Bellomo was drafted by the Minnesota Monarchs in 1988 and was voted as Major League Volleyball's Rookie of the Year. She also joined the beach volleyball tour, earning a No. 5 rating with former Santa Barbara High star Lisa Strand.

"The national team asked her to come down, and I told them, 'She's a little on the small side to be playing middle blocker,' " Gregory recalled. "But they had seen her play and they told me, 'Doesn't matter ... we want a girl with that kind of competitive spirit.' "

Bellomo made the Team USA roster and was soon labeled as "a rising star" by its coaches. She was two years away from the 1992 Olympics when she noticed a soreness in her throat - something beyond even the normal hoarseness she'd experience after a match.

Doctors removed two cysts from her neck and discovered cancer in her thyroid gland. Surgeons were removing the gland a few weeks later when a rare genetic disease caused her body to shut down, with complications from the anasthesia spiking her temperature to nearly 108 degrees. She never awoke.

Gregory struggled with Bellomo's passing for the next several months.

"I have never been that depressed before," she said.

But then she thought of who Judy really was. And so before UCSB's first match the next season, and for every match in the two decades since then, Gregory has said a prayer to her volleyball soul mate:

"I say, 'Judy, please help me coach this game ... Help me to be positive and in the right frame of mind ... I am still thinking of you.' "

The Gauchos lost a tough five-game match at Cal Poly on Friday, and then also went down in five games to UC Riverside on Saturday's Judy Bellomo Night.

The defeats knocked UCSB out of first place in the Big West and had its coach wishing for a raspy-voiced, late-night phone call. But it didn't take long for Gregory to get the message Bellomo had left her.

"When I think I'm having a bad day, or I have a loss, I think of Judy," Gregory said. "She always seems to inspire me beyond that."

Mark Patton's column appears on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Email: mpatton@newspress.com