The connection is indelible, reaching far beyond the walls of Mira Costa High.
"Ever since anyone heard of Mira Costa volleyball, it's been Dae Lea Aldrich," Mira Costa outside hitter Kelli Cordray said. "I think a lot of us were thrilled to have her back."
Aldrich, who coached the school's girls' volleyball team from 1982-91, is returning after a one-season sabbatical. Aldrich needed time to adjust to a new position as an educational adviser--a job she had passed on once before.
"You can't just say no twice," Aldrich said. "I had to know for my future if this is where I wanted to be."
Aldrich's dedication to her new position has not diminished her passion for coaching. And with the aid of assistants Lisa Arce and Carolyn Hueth, she will be able to perform her administrative duties as well as coach.
"I missed it so much," Aldrich said. "It's not a job to be here. The most important thing I learned by not being there is to relish every moment you are there, because I'm not going to be there forever. Stepping back helped me to appreciate what I've had.
"I kind of have a different attitude about going to practice. That was kind of healthy. It feels good to get back something important in my life."
Her contributions to the program carry equal significance. Aldrich's teams were consistently among the most successful in California, winning nine league titles, five Southern Section titles, three state titles and two mythical national championships in 10 seasons. She has coached numerous All-Americans and professional beach players.
"She's had a lot of winning teams," Mustang setter Mandi Lawson said. "If she tells you something, you want to do it."
Mira Costa, ranked eighth in the Division I coaches' poll, is considered one of the leading contenders for the division title. The favorites are top-ranked Newport Harbor and second-ranked Corona del Mar, the defending State Division I champion.
Several Mira Costa players participated on a South Bay club team that played an Orange County squad, which included Newport Harbor and Corona del Mar players, in the 16-and-under Junior Olympic final this summer in Davis, Calif. The Orange County team's victory has served to motivate the Mustangs.
"I can't wait to see them in (the playoffs)," Lawson said. "We're getting ready to beat them. When we see them, we'll be totally fired up."
As Aldrich sees it, the challenge for Mira Costa is to stay sharp until that time.
"We will win our league and take (the playoffs) one game at a time," Aldrich said. "We just cannot falter in between. The kids need to believe they can win."
Cordray, a 5-foot-9 junior, is one of the area's best outside hitters. Her powerful arm-swing and court sense prompted Aldrich to name her captain. Rochelle Esparanza, a 5-6 sophomore, will play opposite Cordray.
Esparanza led Mira Costa (2-0) with nine kills Thursday in a 15-12, 16-14, 16-14 victory over Bishop Montgomery.
The Mustangs strength could be in the middle with 6-2 junior Lori Garber and 6-0 senior Amity LaBree.
Despite this being Lawson's first season as the starting setter, she is not short on experience. The challenge, she says, is perhaps more mental than physical.
"I think I need to show a lot of leadership," Lawson said. "I need to be there to give support. I've always started (on junior varsity and club teams). So, it's not a new role for me."
Natalie Kekuewa, a 5-10 junior, will play opposite Lawson. The season's biggest surprise could be 5-7 freshman outside hitter Kristen Sigel, whom Aldrich said "is probably the best player in the country in her age division."
Although Mira Costa can afford to progress more slowly in the Ocean League because of a lack of competition, there will be an immediate battle for the Pioneer League title between Torrance and South Torrance.
Torrance defeated South in the Division III final last season and again is ranked No. 1. South is No. 2.
Torrance returns starters Vika Malu, Tami Burchard and Sunshine Van Wie. Malu, a 6-1 senior middle blocker, and Burchard, a 5-10 senior hitter, were all-section players. Van Wie, a 5-8 senior outside hitter, was an all-league pick.
"They are the nucleus of our attack, definitely," Torrance Coach Brian Chartier said. "They have the most experience and they are the best players. Any team with those three can go a long way."
Torrance's other starters are seniors: 5-8 outside hitter Circe Thompson, 5-10 middle blocker Sara Fauk, and 5-6 setter Nicole Dispenza. Sophomore Wendy Yokoyama will substitute defensively.
Despite the team's abundance of seniors and history of success, Chartier remains cautiously optimistic.
"We're definitely not the team we were last year," Chartier said. "But we're going to be, by the end of the season, one of the top teams. I think we'll struggle a little early on. But I'm not concerned about that."
The situation is similar at South, where Coach Michele Newman said the team is talented but lacks experience.
Setter Allison Root, a 5-8 junior, and 6-foot senior outside hitter Stephanie Pfau are team leaders.
"Stephanie is definitely a key player," Newman said. "She is our leader on the floor for sure. She is among the most athletic and she has the most court sense."
The middle blockers are Shannon Boxx, a 5-9 senior, and Angela Daywalt, a 6-1 senior. Junior Katie Kenderski will substitute defensively for Daywalt. April Meyer, a 5-10 senior, will play opposite Root and seniors Tania Maync and Selena Rados will split time at outside hitter. Pfau, Boxx and Kenderski are the primary passers.