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Phipps still passionate about volleyball

Posted Nov 3, 2012 by Bob D'Angelo

Updated Aug 31, 2013 at 11:29 AM

As she settled her 6-foot-3 frame into a chair at a Valrico restaurant last Thursday, Keba Phipps was animated, her voice rising excitedly as she made a point. The two-time volleyball Olympian is now 43, but her eyes grew wide with youthful enthusiasm as she talked about teaching skills and techniques to young players. Phipps has been shuttling between Atlanta and Hillsborough County, training players at both venues, loving the intensity she has been cultivating at her clinics.



“The kids in our camps are psychopaths,” Phipps laughed. “They are crazy for the game. It’s passion, power and commitment. Passion has to be in the blood.”

She has a message for players who are “serious about their game and not just trying to have fun.”

“If you want it more than air itself — I want you.”

That’s a nice recruiting motto, but gaining a stronghold among Hillsborough County’s vast talent pool of volleyball players may be a tall order. Phipps has run clinics locally, has had a foray into club volleyball and even had a very brief coaching stint in 2011 at The Out-of-Door Academy in Sarasota (she resigned for personal reasons several weeks into the season). It won’t be easy. There are several established clubs here, and there has been a long, successful history of success by Hillsborough County high schools.

Berkeley Prep and Tampa Prep each have won 15 state titles, and Berkeley is chasing its fourth straight crown this season. Plant has won 10 titles. Randy Dagostino had an 829-161 record (.837 winning percentage) and won 15 state titles coaching for 28 years at Berkeley Prep, while Carol Chalu won 12 state titles at Tampa Prep. Leanna Taylor coached five consecutive state champions at Plant (2006-10) and played on three state titlists at Tampa Prep (1991, ’92, ’94). Durant won three 5A titles under Teri Ohme in 1999, 2001 and 2002.

Heading into Tuesday’s regional semifinals, seven Hillsborough County teams were still alive this season: Steinbrenner (7A), Sickles (6A), Robinson (5A), Berkeley Prep and Tampa Catholic (4A), and Tampa Prep and Seffner Christian (3A).

That’s an impressive volleyball pedigree. So what does Phipps bring to the table? Experience at the Olympic and international level is enticing. Phipps appeared in two Olympics (‘88 and 2004), the 1987 Pan American Games, the 2002 World Championships, the 2003 World Cup and the 2004 World Grand Prix. She played professionally in Italy for more than a decade.

At her peak, Phipps was an outside hitter with a thunderous spike. Toshi Yoshida, who coached the 2004 U.S. Olympic team, called her “a big gun.”

She even appeared on a sports card in 1989 (Sports Illustrated for Kids, card No. 28).

That’s quite a résumé. Now, here’s some background about a woman who has been called the prodigal daughter of American volleyball.

As a 9-year-old tomboy growing up in California, Phipps stood 5-foot-11 and had sprouted to 6-foot-3 when she entered the seventh grade.

“I’ve always been tall,” she said.

But when she started playing, her height was not much of an advantage.

“I was horrible at first. I sat the bench my first year,” she said. “But then the lady from the 17s asked me to play on her team. Playing with older kids helped.”

Playing up allowed Phipps to gain valuable experience and learn from her mistakes.

“Besides, there was no pressure,” she said. “I’m 13 and you’re 17. I’m gonna block you. There is no pressure on me.”

So by the time she joined Team USA as a 17-year-old in the fall of 1986, Phipps was battle-tested and prepared.

“I was already a soldier in a war and this was a battle,” she said.

But as a 19-year-old and the youngest member of the 1988 U.S. Olympic volleyball team in Seoul, South Korea, Phipps was “scared to death.” Phipps was tall, but Olympic giants like Florence Griffith-Joyner and Jackie Joyner-Kersee ruled women’s sports.

Imagine her surprise when she met both athletes during the Games.

“Flo-Jo and Jackie Joyner-Kersee came over and they were asking for my autograph?” Keba said, shaking her head. “I wanted theirs.”

Fame was fleeting. Phipps tested positive for marijuana after a random drug test early in 1990 and was banished at age 20. Rules at the time called for a one-strike-and-you’re-out mandate (since liberalized). Phipps issued a written apology but was out of the picture in the United States.

“I was just being a follower ... do not be a follower, be a leader,” Phipps told the Bradenton Herald in 2011.

“I made some mistakes,” Phipps said last Thursday.

Phipps headed overseas and began a 12-year career playing professionally in Italy. Her imposing height and her hard hitting brought her the Italian League’s most valuable player award in 1991, and a nickname: Pantera Nera, or black panther, a nod to her quickness on the court.

“They weren’t ready for me” in Italy, she said. “I scared them. “When you can scare your opponent before you step on the court, well, that’s something.”

After resisting overtures for several years, Phipps returned to the U.S. national team in time for the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Her return in 2002 was due partly to the efforts of her Italian League teammate on the Bergamo squad, Tara Cross-Battle.

Phipps’ comeback was bittersweet. She sustained an eye injury during a blocking drill before the finals of the 2002 World Championships and watched from the bench as the U.S. squad lost to — of all teams —  Italy. After reinjuring the same eye in 2003, she began wearing goggles.

“You’re supposed to keep your head down when you’re blocking, but I always kept my face up,” Phipps said. “I got hit in the left eye the first time and couldn’t see for a week.”

The U.S. team finished fifth in the Athens Olympics.

Now that her playing days are over, Phipps has turned her focus to camps and clinics. She compares good volleyball to athletic choreography, where players are always in the right spot during a match.

“Players have to play in unison. They have to move together. They have to feel each other. You need each other,” Phipps said. “In baseball you can hit a home run. In basketball you can dribble from one end of the court to the other and score.

“You cannot play volleyball alone. You need your teammates. Everyone has to work for each other.”

Sharpening a player’s physical tools is important, but mental toughness is also critical.

“You need the right mental attitude in training. That’s what people don’t teach,” Phipps said. Those are things that college coaches want.”

Phipps said playing with an “alter ego” is important in volleyball. It allows a player to channel her intensity into a positive force. A player can be passive away from the game, but when the whistle blows, Phipps looking for some fire. And that’s what she teaches.

“Get angry. I want you angry. I played better when I was angry,” Phipps said.

“Playing with that alter ego is so important. You’re like an actress. Off court you can be all sweet and nice, but on court you can be whoever you need to be.

“You’re an actress and the volleyball court is your stage.”

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