Mike Hurlbut, the San Clemente boys’ volleyball coach, wanted to exorcise some ghosts.
Hurlbut has watched Laguna Beach torture his alma mater all too often. In 1981, Laguna Beach even dangled a Southern Section title before the Tritons’ eyes before magically snapping it from their grasp.
So Hurlbut was understandably ebullient after his team beat its host in a five-game nonleague thriller last season.
He was ready to gloat to Laguna Beach alum Adam Johnson, his good friend and former USC volleyball teammate, who sat in the stands and watched Hurlbut’s short-lived celebration.
“It was sweet,” Hurlbut said. “Then A.J. comes down after the match and all he does is point to the banners. He’ll always have that on me.”
Five section championship banners for boys’ volleyball reside in the Laguna Beach gymnasium. No team has won more major division titles.
Twenty years ago, the Artists won their first championship. In the next eight years, they won four more, establishing a tradition that is without peer in the county. Although the enrollment has generally varied between only 600-900 students, the Artists have produced some of the county’s best players and coaches.
Among the honor roll members:
* Dusty Dvorak, who played setter for the gold-medal winning 1984 U.S Olympic volleyball team.
* Johnson, a former USC All-American and one of the top players on the Assn. of Volleyball Professionals beach tour.
* Oz Simmons, who played at USC, then coached Dana Hills to the 1986 Division 4-A boys’ volleyball championship.
And there’s Matt Albade, Jeff Blue, Rudy Dvorak, Scott Fortune, Leif Hanson, Lance Stewart . . .
The list goes on, and so does the tradition. And it all began with Rolf.
Rolf Engen didn’t invent Laguna Beach volleyball. But he built the program’s foundation.
Engen was officially only an assistant coach for two seasons at Laguna Beach--1974 and ’75--and Mike Duncan, a math teacher at Laguna Beach, was the head coach.
But the players realized Engen’s impact.
“All the credit for this program’s success should go to Rolf Engen,” Simmons said.
In 1974, Simmons knew Engen was one of the few highly knowledgeable volleyball coaches around, so he and teammate Albade asked him to coach the high school team. With a little persuasion, Engen accepted.
Engen’s volleyball experience first expanded after he earned a basketball scholarship to play for John Wooden at UCLA in 1950.
Engen was a top-notch basketball player from Santa Ana High and Santa Ana College. When an injury sidelined him, he began playing more volleyball.
But to this day, Engen, who is 65 and has retired in Park City, Utah, credits much of his volleyball success to Wooden.
“In 1974, we lost in the semifinals and finished third,” Engen said. “Physically, the guys did a pretty good job. But mentally, I didn’t do them justice and teach them what I learned from Coach Wooden.
“When I came back for the second season in ’75, we worked on the mental aspect of the game. We wanted them to be focused solely on one play at a time.”
Said Simmons, who is in his 13th year coaching at Dana Hills: “We were trained by Rolf just to do our best. He didn’t look at the scoreboard.
“He just said ‘You guys do your job and be gentlemen afterward.’ ”
The business-like approach netted the Artists a 22-0 record, and they defeated Santa Monica for the section championship, 15-5, 15-8, 17-19, 15-13, on May 30, 1975, in front of 1,100 at UC Irvine.
“Even 20 years ago at Laguna, volleyball was a pretty big sport,” said Dvorak, who plays on the four-man beach volleyball tour. “We probably attracted more fans than the football team.”
Said Simmons: “We did get big crowds. For some reason, it was sort of the social thing to do in the community. It wasn’t just our parents, but even, well, maybe you would call them the yuppies of that age, they would come to the games too.”
And they would cheer for college-bound players such as Simmons (USC), Albade (UCLA), Cliff Amsden (San Diego State), Casey Armstrong (UC Santa Barbara) and Dusty Dvorak (USC).
Dusty was the first of three standout Dvorak brothers at Laguna Beach. Rudy (USC) and Drake (San Diego State) would follow along with sister Diedra (Stanford).
The second generation of Dvoraks already is making an impact. Michelle Christ, an All-Pacific Coast League selection on the Laguna Beach girls’ team last season, is the daughter of the oldest Dvorak sister, Marie.
But the Dvoraks weren’t the only family that kept the tradition going. Although 1975 was Engen’s final season, his son Kip helped Laguna Beach win its second title in 1977.
So was it was easier to win championships 20 years ago?
Well, Karch Kiraly, the Michael Jordan of volleyball, helped Santa Barbara win the championship in 1978 and was named section player of the year. That was his only title.
San Clemente defeated Santa Barbara to win the title in 1976, and Santa Barbara didn’t even reach the finals in 1977 when Laguna Beach defeated Santa Barbara San Marcos.
Laguna Beach won its third title in 1981, a.k.a. “The Lance Stewart Show,” Simmons said.
Stewart, the 1981 section player of the year in football, basketball and volleyball, was the catalyst who helped the Artists stage one of the most miraculous comebacks in section history in the final against San Clemente.
Laguna Beach won after trailing, two games to one. The Artists faced numerous match points in Games 4 and 5 and they trailed, 14-8 , in Game 5.
But everyone still talks about The Spike.
“I swear to you, you could see that Lance was so frustrated that he just jumped up and swatted that ball,” said Charlie Brande, then coach at Newport Harbor.
Said Hurlbut, who was a San Clemente sophomore in 1981: “To this day, I know it’s something Lance is proud of. It was clearly a back-row attack, but the officials just missed it.”
Said Stewart: “There were so many side outs and rotations, I honestly don’t remember if I was in the front or back row when I hit that spike.”
The record shows Laguna Beach posted a 6-15, 15-10, 11-15, 18-16, 16-14 victory over San Clemente in a packed gymnasium at Saddleback College, May 22, 1981. Beyond that is the stuff of which legends are made.
In Game 4, a spectator brawl broke out, halting the match with San Clemente one-point away from a championship.
“Fracas is a light term,” Hurlbut said. “Fists were flying, blood was drawn. It was ugly.”
Said Jack Iverson, San Clemente’s coach until 1991: “We had a match point, and it took about 15 minutes to stop a fight in the stands. It was unfortunate because we had the momentum and everything was going our way.”
The Artists rallied to win Game 4, 18-16, before San Clemente made its last thrust at glory. After watching their team grab a 14-8 lead in Game 5, Triton fans began their victory dance and hoisted banners proclaiming a championship.
“I thought we had it in the bag,” Iverson said.
But the Artists began chipping away. With the capacity crowd on its feet for the next 30 minutes, Stewart said Laguna Beach posted 18 consecutive side outs to deny San Clemente the title.
Icemen and a dynasty
Laguna Beach’s title in ’81 was followed by titles in ’82 and ’83. Only one other county team, Whittier Christian, has won three championships in a row (1991-93).
“The caliber of talent that came through here during that time was remarkable,” said Christiansen, a long-time Artist assistant.
And Coach Bill Ashen, who later coached at UC Irvine, knew how to utilize that impressive pool of talented players.
In 1981, the Artists were so loaded that Johnson and Scott Fortune, a future U.S. national team member, sat on the bench. They were key players on the ’82 and ’83 championship teams, but Rudy Dvorak ('82) and Leif Hanson ('83) were named section players of the year.
“After we won in ’81, people started calling us the ‘Icemen,’ ” Johnson said. “Ashen always told us to always play the same way.
“If we’re up, 14-1, we weren’t showing a negative emotion or a positive emotion. If we were down, 14-1, it was the same thing. People wouldn’t be able to tell if we were winning or losing. We felt we could come back from any deficit, even 14-1.”
But even the best champions need a worthy challenge, and San Clemente was the perfect rival to push the Artists to the limit.
“Those numbers--14-8--they still haunt us,” Iverson said. “It doesn’t matter how they came back and won it in 1981. They deserved it.
“The legacy Rolf Engen left at Laguna Beach was discipline and fundamentals. They played just about error-free. They won with their steadiness and never got too up or too discouraged. We may have had teams that were just as talented, but . . .”
Laguna Beach has five championships; San Clemente, one.
The rivalry has been intense and neither team held back in the head-to-head matchups.
Said Hurlbut: “I’ll run into Lance in the darndest places, and we always give each other that look . . . it always comes back to 14-8, and we share a good laugh.”
It is those personal relationships between players and coaches that many cherish more than the records or championships.
Last season, Laguna Beach reached the section final for the first time since 1983. Although the Artists had their share of talented players--including Dan Styles, Kurt Nelson and Szilard Kovacs (now at USC)--Huntington Beach won the Division I title match, three games to one.
“I felt lucky to make it to the finals once,” said Laguna Beach Coach Michael Soylular, in his fifth year. “The only pressure here is what you put on yourself. There’s tradition, but if you don’t think you can live up to it and you feel pressure, you shouldn’t be here.”
Boys’ volleyball was serious business at Laguna Beach before the sport was sanctioned by the Southern Section.
“Even when I was in junior high, I remember at lunch time, hundreds of kids would gather around the courts to watch and play volleyball,” Stewart said. “It was a big deal to make it on the No. 1 court.”
At the high school, Christiansen played in the precursor to official CIF-sanctioned high school boys’ volleyball, the Southern California High School Volleyball Assn. He earned a partial scholarship to UCLA and played on national championship teams of 1975 and ’77.
Laguna Beach, Corona del Mar and Newport Harbor were three of the first 12 teams to compete in the SCHSVA that also included Manhattan Beach Mira Costa, Los Angeles Loyola, Santa Monica and Inglewood.
After growing interest expanded the league to 40 teams in 1973, section administrators held an informal vote and approved sanctioning the sport for 1974. Seventy-five teams competed in 13 leagues that year.
Now, there are 234 teams competing in 31 leagues.
So do the best treat their tradition with respect?
Only three of the five boys’ volleyball section title banners hang in the gymnasium. Two are kept under the protection of Athletic Director Tom Klingenmeier.
“Why aren’t those banners up?” Stewart asked Klingenmeier.
“I have them because Mike’s kids keep knocking them down in practice,” Klingenmeier said.
Guess those kids figure they’ll just replace those old banners with some new ones.