Former Mira Costa High and UC Berkeley volleyball star Holly McPeak, sitting outside UCLA's Pauley Pavilion to discuss the big twist her collegiate career has taken, said she never imagined that she would spend so much time inside an arena that was once enemy turf.
After graduating from Mira Costa, where she was an All-league and All-CIF setter for three years, McPeak accepted a scholarship to play at Cal. She led the Golden Bears to three playoff berths and was named Pacific 10 Conference freshman of the year in 1987.
Cal lost to UCLA in the first round of the NCAA playoffs in McPeak's freshman and sophomore years. The last thing on her mind was ever calling Pauley Pavilion home.
But after McPeak's junior season in 1989, UC Berkeley Coach Dave DeGroot banned her from the team because of "personality differences" between them. McPeak then challenged a conference policy--which states that a transferring athlete must sit out two years--in order to play her final season with the Bruins.
Winning the appeal wasn't easy, UCLA women's Athletic Director Judith Holland said. McPeak's case had to be approved by faculty athletic representatives from each of the league's 10 institutions.
But Holland said McPeak was allowed to play immediately because her case was unique. "She was barred from the team," Holland said. "Holly didn't have much choice. It made sense for her to transfer to a UC school because she was so far along in her academics."
McPeak said DeGroot told her that she would not play volleyball at Cal this season. DeGroot took over the women's program there after McPeak's freshman year when former Coach Marlene Piper left to teach and coach at UC Davis, a Division II school.
McPeak said she got along with DeGroot during her sophomore year, but problems developed in the middle of her junior season.
"We had this streak where we lost about five games in a row, and he got frustrated and took it out on me," said McPeak, who grew up in Manhattan Beach.
"(DeGroot would) blow up and say I wasn't doing what he wanted," she said. "He really came down hard on me, and I was unhappy. By the middle of the season I was seriously thinking of leaving because volleyball was not fun for me anymore. I thought of not even playing my senior season. It was a depressing time for me."
Lisa Arce, a teammate of McPeak's at Mira Costa and Berkeley, said many Cal players are frustrated with DeGroot. Arce, a senior, said she also contemplated transferring to another school for her last season.
"Dave is just a real easygoing coach, and at this level we want someone who will push us more. We need to be pushed more to win," Arce said in a phone interview from Berkeley. "They bumped heads because Holly is definitely a competitor. She's not one to lose. She always plays to win, whether its a drill, a scrimmage or a game."
DeGroot, also reached by phone, said: "I really don't want to get into it. I just thought it was best for (McPeak) to go on. She's a great athlete and a great competitor. I'm glad she's helping UCLA out."
McPeak is doing more than that, as DeGroot saw for himself during his team's two losses to the Bruins this season. Cal is struggling with a 2-10 conference record.
McPeak, 21, who at 5-foot-7 is considered short even for a setter, earned a starting spot at UCLA early in the year, beating out junior setter Jennifer Gratteau. By then, McPeak had already broken a UCLA set assist record with 97 against Stanford. The old mark was 81 by Michelle Boyette in 1984.
"We wanted (McPeak) out of high school because she was a tremendous athlete," said UCLA Coach Andy Banachowski, who has led the Bruins to five national championships. "I only wish I had her for the three years instead of the one. Besides being a great athlete, she's quick and very competitive."
McPeak said there's a big difference between UCLA's volleyball program and Cal's. "Everyone at UCLA wants to be the best," she said. "At Cal no one gets pushed. You show up and go through the motions."
The Bruins are 21-1 (13-0 in Pac-10 play) heading into tonight's Big West Conference Challenge at Pauley Pavilion. The powerful four-team field includes USC, the University of Hawaii and defending national champion Cal State Long Beach.
UCLA is favored to win the event, a familiar situation for McPeak. At Mira Costa she was a member of two CIF 5-A champion volleyball teams. During her junior year, in 1985, the Mustangs went undefeated (29-0) en route to winning the state championship. In 1986 Mira Costa reached the finals of the state playoffs while compiling a 23-1 mark.
Mira Costa Coach Dae Lea Aldrich says McPeak is the hardest-working athlete she's coached. In 10 years Aldrich has led the Mustangs to three state championships, two No. 1 national rankings, eight CIF titles and two state finals.
"She's a workaholic," Aldrich said. "She's a great athlete who will do anything you ask, and she'll do it twice as hard. She's the girl that does the extra mile and extra lifting in the off season."
Aldrich said practically every major collegiate volleyball program in the country wanted McPeak out of high school.
"Her backcourt skills are great, and she has a great jump serve," the coach said.
Banachowski said UCLA's offense is faster and better with McPeak in the lineup. That's why she edged out Gratteau for the starting spot.
"We were very good last year with Jennifer, but we finally made the decision to go with Holly because she added a lot more quickness," he said. "Everybody seemed to play at a quicker pace when Holly was in there."
McPeak's speed and athleticism will probably bring her success on the women's professional beach volleyball tour, where she plans to compete after college. She also wants to play indoors in Europe after obtaining an English degree from UCLA next fall.
But first she wants to help her new team earn a playoff berth--in the arena she has learned to call home.