In the Quest for City Titles, Dolphins Are Always in the Swim

Times Staff Writer

When high school athletes walk past the six cases brimming with trophies or enter the gymnasium with its championship banners hanging everywhere, they can't help but be impressed with the tradition at Palisades High School.

"There's definitely a mystique about them," said Neal Newman, volleyball coach at University High. "Some kids say, 'Oh my gosh, Palisades.' They've got a reputation as always being tough in some sports.

"But then, it's something they've earned."

In the last decade, Palisades has dominated boys and girls tennis and volleyball, girls swimming and boys golf. And this year alone, the Dolphins won seven Los Angeles City team titles: boys and girls tennis, volleyball and swimming, and boys golf.

The boys tennis team has now captured the 4-A championship 16 times in the school's 25-year history, seven times in the last eight years, with only a second-place finish to Taft in 1983 breaking the streak. The girls have won the 4-A title eight times since 1975, including the last two seasons.

The boys volleyball team won its sixth straight 4-A title, finishing the with a 34-0-1 record. Since 1975, the girls volleyball team has won the city 4-A championship every year except 1981.

The girls swimming team has been almost as dominant, winning its fifth consecutive team title. But when the boys team claimed its first this year, it marked the first time in the history of the city championships that girls and boys from the same school won the titles in the same season.

Finally, the Palisades boys golf team took its fifth title in a row by upsetting previously undefeated Taft.

While Coach Newman said that Palisades has excellent coaching and had a phenomenal group of athletes this year, the Palisades coaches insist that it is more than just an abundance of talent that has brought them championships year after year.

"We don't get all of the stars in the area," said Gayle Van Meter, the girls volleyball coach since 1970. "Uni, Taft and Marlborough take a lot."

That's not to say that Van Meter has not coached some of the area's best. She has.

For example, Toody Maher, a middle hitter who graduated in 1978, was the senior captain and setter for the 1982 Berkeley team that upset University of the Pacific to win Berkeley's first and only Northern Pacific Athletic Conference title.

"I think it's more a matter of attitude and confidence," Van Meter said. "We're expected to win and we expect to win."

Van Meter said she thinks her team, as well as other Palisades teams, win some games simply by walking into the gym.

"Whenever a team comes here or we go somewhere, everybody kind of stands back and watches us," said Heidi Henkle, a senior setter on the girls volleyball team. "It's like they expect to lose even before the match begins."

Bud Kling, who has coached boys tennis for the last six years and the girls this season, said that he too has been blessed with talent, such as Kelly Jones, a four-time All-American at Pepperdine (1983-86), but that nothing can replace the winning attitude Palisades athletes possess and exude.

"Sports is so much a mental game," Kling said. "Kids come in here and see all the championships, and they expect to carry on the tradition. When you expect to win, as long as you don't get cocky, you're going to make the shot in the pressure situations.

"And more important, I think a lot of other teams expect us to win. Even when we don't have the talent."

Lloyd Weitzman, the boys golf coach for the last 15 years, said he didn't think he his team would win a fifth consecutive city championship.

"We came in as the underdogs, so I wasn't really expecting it," Weitzman said. "But they were so self-assured and felt that they could do it, and they did. It's just an attitude the kids have, that winning spirit."

The girls swimming victory, however, was probably an even greater surprise than the golf title. The girls entered the championships with only 12 swimmers, contrasted with 18 for El Camino Real, the favorites.

In swimming, points are given to the top 12 finishers, so the more participants a team has in an event, the better chance it has to accumulate points.

"I didn't see anyway we could win it this year," said Dave Anderson, a Palisades swim coach for 15 years. "I told the girls you don't win a championship with a uniform, but when it came down to it, I told them they were from Palisades and they're not No. 2 until they've been beaten."

"But maybe there was a mystique this year," he said.

In the finals, Anderson said his girls "just swam out of their heads." Michelle Saxer, the senior captain, who won the 200-yard individual medley and the 100 butterfly and swam the first leg of the winning 400-freestyle relay, swam especially well.

In the relay, Saxer finished one second ahead of El Camino Real's Kristin Underwood, who beat Saxer in the 500 freestyle last year. That loss was the only blemish on Saxer's record in three years of City competition.

"I was confident that if we hung together we could win it," she said. "We wanted to win because once you start, you just want to keep doing it."

A common criticism directed at Palisades is that football, basketball and baseball championships are not among its many titles. But some coaches said it's perfectly understandable that the Dolphins enjoy more success in the so-called minor sports.

Coach Anderson said the student body is beach-oriented and gravitates toward the classic beach sports, volleyball and swimming.

And Pacific Palisades is an affluent area, where children of well-to-do parents have a greater opportunity to take private golf or tennis lessons from a professional at a country club.

"Of course, our rivals at Taft and El Camino Real have their share of kids who belong to country clubs, too," Coach Weitzman said.

Affluent Pacific Palisades parents include not only successful business people, but some successful athletes as well.

For example, Lakers General Manager Jerry West is the father of David West, the No. 1 golfer for Weitzman in 1981.

"The parents are well-to-do and the kids are exposed to that success and winning from birth," said Howard Enstedt, the volleyball coach for the past 23 years. "Whether it's a genetic or an environmental thing, these kids have a lot going for them."

Jon Kahn, a senior who led the boys to the tennis title and lost in the individual singles finals to defending champion Giora Payes of Fairfax, perhaps best typifies someone with a lot going for him.

Coach Kling said that Kahn, despite weaknesses in his game such as in his serve and volley, is still one of the best in the area. And he is an intelligent young man, as evidenced by his 3.8 grade-point average and acceptance to Stanford University.

Kahn said he is never satisfied with less than the best, which is one reason he said he chose Stanford over Harvard. Both universities recruited him heavily, he said, but he wants to play tennis for the best.

"I've always hated being No. 2," he said after his 6-1, 6-4 loss to Payes last week. "It's just not the best."

Of course, for seven teams at Palisades this year, being No. 2 is not a concern--they are No. 1.

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