SMART FINISH FOR USC'S KIPPS.
Few successful students use phrases like ``the lowest moment in my life'' to describe their senior year of college.
But for Alaina Kipps, her senior season at USC took a disastrous turn last September, when she landed awkwardly on a volleyball court in Wisconsin and tore ligaments in her left knee.
All of Kipps' plans for a wonderful conclusion to her college career ended in a split-second. Eight months later, she still feels some soreness in her knee, and bitterness over the injury.
``I'd never been injured before, not even my ankles,'' Kipps said. ``I was depressed for all of the fall semester and a good part of the spring semester.''
But what began sadly is ending on a much higher note, as Kipps was named USC valedictorian, the first female athlete in the history of the university to win the honor. In 1981, Craig Furniss, an All-American water polo player, was the first athlete named valedictorian.
Kipps, a psychobiology major, will deliver a speech during USC's commencement ceremonies Friday morning.
The honor is the culmination of a perfect four-year academic record - she never earned anything other than an A and graduates with a 4.0 grade-point average.
``I didn't come into USC thinking I could do that,'' Kipps said. ``But the stakes started to rise and I started to feel I could do it.''
The news that Kipps won the school's top academic honor surprised some of those around her, because she rarely discusses personal accomplishments.
``She's so subtle,'' said Lisa Love, the former USC women's volleyball coach. ``A lot of people found out recently she did this, or did that. She's close to the vest. You really don't know that stuff about Alaina.''
Such as the fact she has played the French horn since fifth grade and was a member of USC's concert band. Or that she won a fellowship last summer at an HIV research center for mothers and children, where she explored ways to improve compliance levels for HIV children reluctant to take their medicine.
Or that she has been accepted to Harvard Medical School, where she will start in the fall.
``In my family, the way you show your love is how hard you work,'' Kipps said. ``We're driven to work hard.''
Her father, David, is a lung doctor while her uncle, Thomas, is a genetic medicine researcher.
``They're all workaholics,'' Kipps said.
Love knew she had an unusual athlete when she read the essay Kipps wrote on her USC application. The topic was solving global dilemmas.
``After I read that, I told people, `I think she's going to win a Nobel Prize,' '' Love said. ``Everything she's done is not for her, it's so she can extend it to other people.''
Kipps is not only smart, she's outspoken. During her freshman year, USC president Steven Sample lectured athletes following an academic scandal involving students who rarely attended a particular class but still received passing grades.
Kipps went back to her apartment and wrote Sample a stern note, informing him that not all athletes were questionable students.
``I wanted him to know there were people in the athletic department who wanted to be in school and in honors classes,'' Kipps said. ``People outside athletics have no idea how much time we spend on it.''
Love enjoyed Kipps' sharp mind, because she always had plenty of questions and didn't hesitate to ask them.
``It was delightful to coach with that kind of inquiry,'' Love said. ``It's an exchange. She's contributing. She's not attacking.''
Except when it came to volleyball. A 6-foot-3 middle blocker, Kipps set a USC record her junior season with 151 block assists. She ranks fourth all-time at USC with 172 total blocks.
``As subtle as she is with accomplishments, she is not a subtle player,'' Love said.
That's what made her knee injury even more devastating. She was a team captain, and USC's hopes for a national championship vanished when Kipps went down.
``The first couple weeks, I could cry any part of the day,'' Kipps said. ``I'd be walking on the crutches on campus and it would hit me.''
It's not even close when Kipps considers if she would exchange being valedictorian with a healthy volleyball season.
``I would give this up in a second to play one or two more Pac-10 matches,'' she said.
The effect of Kipps' injury was just as critical to her team.
``Practices for a while were like training in a morgue,'' Love said. ``My heart sank. It took the team at least a couple weeks to recover. There was a hole in the team's heart.''
Because of the injury, Kipps could have redshirted this season and played next year. But she is ready to go to Harvard and become a doctor.
``I just need to move on,'' Kipps said.
ALAINA KIPPS FILE
Position: Middle blocker
Hometown: Santa Cruz
Personal: Is USC's first female athlete to be named valedictorian. Has maintained 4.0 GPA in high school and college.
PHOTO Alaina Kipps is the first female athlete to be named USC valedictorian.
Daily News File Photo
BOX: ALAINA KIPPS FILE (see text)