For Holly McPeak, the nightmare is now just a memory. In fact, she looks back on what transpired between her and her volleyball coach at California after last season as a blessing in disguise.
And why shouldn’t she? The 5-foot-7 setter’s collegiate volleyball career was in jeopardy of ending a season early but now she’s guiding top-ranked UCLA into tonight’s West Regional at Pauley Pavilion, and quite possibly toward a national championship.
McPeak, a standout at Mira Costa High in Manhattan Beach and one of the most heavily recruited setters in the country, had everything going for her. She led her high school team to a pair of state championships and a 52-1 record over her last two seasons, and was labeled by Volleyball Monthly magazine as “the most coveted setter in the country.”
In her first year at Cal, she was named the Pacific 10 Conference freshman of the year.
But then came Dave DeGroot, replacing Marlene Piper as coach, and McPeak’s life in volleyball subsequently changed from one filled with optimism to one of growing frustration. Ultimately, she was banned from the team.
“It was just basically, ‘Do what you want. Get what you want out of it,’ ” McPeak says of Cal volleyball under DeGroot. “I never felt it was disciplined enough.”
But she had accepted a scholarship and as a sophomore was intent on making the most of her commitment, and the team was faring well. The Golden Bears with McPeak had gone 18-15 under Piper in 1987, then had posted a 19-15 record in ’88 and a 19-13 mark in ’89 under DeGroot.
But McPeak and DeGroot did not get along. By the end of her junior year, McPeak said she lost respect for DeGroot as a coach and DeGroot considered her an uncoachable player.
“He wanted me to do one thing and I thought I was doing it,” McPeak said. “His anger built up and I didn’t know I wasn’t doing the right thing because he never told me. It was just a buildup, and he didn’t deal with it correctly, and it just blew up.”
DeGroot told McPeak not to bother to return for her senior year, which was fine with her, since she had no desire to come back anyway.
“I was considering not playing toward the end of last season, but he did not allow me to come back,” McPeak said. “He was not being fair. He wouldn’t even talk to me or explain why he did not want me to come back.”
DeGroot was on a recruiting trip and couldn’t be reached for comment, but said last month: “I just thought it was best for (McPeak) to go on.”
Being so far along academically, she had all but decided to finish her senior year at Cal and then focus her training on the professional beach circuit.
“Then somebody suggested an intra-conference transfer,” McPeak recalls. “It popped back into my head that I could play again. It would really hurt me not to play and watch everybody else play in my senior year. I wasn’t even considering the Pac-10 because of the rule, but somebody mentioned that I could petition for transfer to a UC school and I just went, ‘Wow, UCLA!’ ”
McPeak listened to that somebody and challenged the conference rule that states that a transferring student must lose two years of eligibility. She called UCLA Coach Andy Banachowski and with his help succeeded in gaining the support of representatives of all 10 conference schools, who voted unanimously to waive the transfer rule.
“There were very unusual circumstances,” Banachowski said. "(DeGroot) basically cut her from the team, told her she wouldn’t play there anymore.”
McPeak said: “I thought there would be a 5% chance that it would pass, but it did and I’m in heaven.”
Meanwhile, DeGroot is looking for players to help a team that finished this season at 8-21 overall and at the bottom of the Pac-10 at 3-15.
Lisa Arce, another former Mira Costa star who just completed her final season under DeGroot, offered this assessment of the program:
“There’s no love lost between us. We got along as coach and player, but there were times in practice where I just couldn’t believe the things we were still doing. I was frustrated and it was hard for me as a player to keep motivating myself and that’s really odd for me because I still love volleyball.
“I’ve heard of people who don’t want to play because they don’t want to come back under (DeGroot’s) coaching, but I’ve also heard people who totally like him and believe in him, so there are two sides to it. But I personally did not enjoy my last year playing there with him.”
But all is well in Westwood, where McPeak and the No. 1 Bruins are going into tonight’s 6:30 match against 14th-ranked New Mexico--a team the Bruins have not played since 1970-71 and one that features two setters in its attack--with a 32-1 record and a 29-match winning streak.
The second match pits No. 3 Stanford (26-3) against No. 19 San Diego State (24-11).
McPeak will walk onto the court as only the 13th player in NCAA history to record more than 5,000 assists, but Banachowski says that her abilities go well beyond statistics.
“She’s helped us with so much in addition to the setting,” he said. “Our team quickness and team defense have drastically improved this year and she’s helped tremendously along those lines.”