Verdugo Hills Courts a Crown : Volleyball: Last’s year unsatisfying finish built a never-say-die attitude among the Dons and the foundation for a possible City Section 3-A Division championship.
Glenda Calvo expected at least eight different responses when she posed the question to the members of the Verdugo Hills High boys’ volleyball team.
Calvo, in her first year as an assistant coach for the Dons, was hoping her query would spark discussion, lead to a narrower focus.
“What do you want?” Calvo asked pointedly on the first day of practice.
Without missing a beat, the players replied in unison: “Center court at UCLA.”
So much for setting goals.
Verdugo Hills players have known what they wanted--the City Section 3-A Division championship--ever since the end of last season, when they realized they might be five victories better than their 8-5 record indicated.
Committed to playing at their highest level regardless of their opponents’ strength or tradition, the Dons bolted to a 12-0 record this season.
“We think we can beat anybody,” said junior hitter Soi Hoang.
Who can argue?
The Dons entered Wednesday’s final Northern League match against Marshall assured of at least a share of the league championship.
Verdugo Hills, with no player taller than 5-foot-10, has used quickness and teamwork to rip opponents. On the occasions when they’ve been stretched past three games, the Dons have rallied together.
“They don’t get frustrated,” Calvo said of the players. “They get angry enough to get even.”
The Dons do have physical ability. This is a team “that’s got the hops,” Calvo said.
Loosely translated, that means the Dons can jump out of the gym.
They also can serve, dig and block with any team in their division.
“Last year, we had a good team but we weren’t together,” junior outside hitter Kheng Lim said. “Everyone was playing their own game.
“This year, we’re playing as a team.”
To that end, the players did not elect team captains this season, preferring to rotate the responsibility each match.
Coaches Dino Stirpe and Calvo are responsible for much of that spirit of togetherness.
Stirpe, who also coaches girls’ basketball, admits that he knew hardly anything about volleyball when he agreed to take the job this season. But Stirpe, Verdugo Hills’ coordinator of student activities, knew plenty about delegating responsibility. He encouraged Calvo, a former Verdugo Hills player who also competed for Glendale College, to help him coach after her college season ended.
Calvo brought technical skills, practice drills and match experience to the program, freeing Stirpe to focus his energy on motivation and teamwork.
“They were already talented,” Stirpe said. “I didn’t need to apply any pressure.
“I’m flexible and we discuss things openly. That way, if there’s problems, they don’t fester.”
Verdugo Hills gained momentum with early victories over schools such as Sylmar and Birmingham. The Dons’ confidence grew when they beat teams such as Monroe in tournaments.
However, the turning point in the season, the match that really sent the team on its way, was a five-game, 3 1/2-hour nonleague victory over Van Nuys. Verdugo Hills rallied for a 15-13 victory in the fifth game at Van Nuys.
“Some teams break under pressure,” Calvo said. “Our guys seem to love it.”
The Dons’ experience against Van Nuys paid dividends in their five-game win over Belmont, and again in their toughest league match against Marshall.
After losing the first game to the powerful Barristers, Verdugo Hills came back for another victory.
The Dons are preparing for next week’s 3-A playoffs intent on bringing a City championship to a school starved for a winner.
In recent years, Verdugo Hills has experienced little success in basketball or football.
Students eager to exercise their vocal chords have been getting the chance when the volleyball team plays at home. The team that plays together has helped bring the student body together.
“There’s a lot of noise in there, especially when we play teams that have beaten us in football and basketball,” Stirpe said. “It’s like they’re saying, ‘This one is in your face.’ ”