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Success of Mater Dei No Longer a Surprise : Volleyball: Unranked at beginning of season, Monarchs prepare for playoff quarterfinals behind hitting of Moeller.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A year ago, Amy Moeller’s biggest concern was what team she would play for in the upcoming club volleyball season.

The high school season had become history after Mater Dei lost to Dana Hills in the first round of the Southern Section 5-A playoffs.

But a year later, Moeller and her Mater Dei teammates are still worrying about the playoffs. In particular, a 5-A quarterfinal match Tuesday night at Laguna Beach (19-2).

Mater Dei (17-4), unranked at the beginning of the season, has quickly earned a reputation as one of the top teams in the Southern Section.

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The Monarchs, seeded second in the playoffs, rolled to a 16-4 regular-season record, with two losses to top-seeded Lakewood St. Joseph in Angelus League play.

“We were the little underdogs at the start of the year,” said Moeller, a 6-foot outside hitter who is averaging 18 kills. “We liked it a lot. I think we woke people up and made them watch us.”

The first wake-up call came before the season, when Laura Kennedy took over as coach.

Kennedy, a former Pepperdine player who had coached Orange County Volleyball club members, saw a team bursting with potential but lacking some basic skills.

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“I came in and restructured a lot of the things we did,” Kennedy said. “I taught them how to pass and block differently. I changed it just for my own sanity.”

During the first three weeks of practice, Moeller and her teammates worked on nothing but passing and serving. Hitting drills were an afterthought, an after-practice reward.

“We kept passing and working on defense,” Kennedy said. “After that, everything else just fit right in.”

Mater Dei created a stir at the Orange County championships in September, beating Newport Harbor, one of the county’s top teams, in a first-round match.

Then came nonleague victories over Capistrano Valley, Irvine, Corona del Mar, Ocean View, Marina and the two narrow, five-game losses to St. Joseph.

Moeller, meanwhile, had established herself as one of the county’s top hitters. Colleges such as University of San Diego, Loyola Marymount, Santa Clara and St. Mary’s began showing interest in the senior.

But Moeller and the Monarchs struggled somewhat Thursday in their opening-round match, a five-game victory over Ventura. Moeller couldn’t hit over Ventura’s tall blockers. When she hit past the blocks, Ventura players would dig it and set up their offense.

Knowing her standout player was frustrated, Kennedy benched Moeller in both the second and fourth games. Moeller also sat out the fifth game until Mater Dei had a 9-6 lead.

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Her replacement, Amy Rice, played with consistency, finishing with seven kills.

“I took Amy (Moeller) out and decided to keep her out, hoping it will make her a better player,” Kennedy said. “I think it worked. She didn’t go completely in the tank and came back with some big side outs right when we needed them in Game 5.

“It was risky, but at the same time, we knew she would come through in the end.”

Moeller said riding the bench was fine with her. Although she had been slowed by a sore back, she said it was no excuse for the way she played.

“I just didn’t have it that night,” she said. “I came out and Laura asked me what the problem was. Then I was sitting on the bench, telling myself I better get my act together.

“I think it’s that I get down on myself sometimes, and I don’t really need to. We have other people on this team who are good players.”

Moeller said the nagging back injury “is nothing serious” and has treated it with ice and electrostatic stimulation.

“We’re working hard right now just to keep her healthy,” Kennedy said.

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