If the Dana Hills girls' volleyball team had wanted to call this a rebuilding year, no one would have argued. Consider:
* Five starters did not return from last season and none of the current Dolphin starters is taller than 5 feet 10.
* Coach Mike Hurlbut resigned after last season and a new coach wasn't named until a week before practice began. The replacement, former Long Beach State star Dave Hollaway, had never coached a high school girls' team.
* They didn't even have their gym for almost the first month of the season.
The Dolphins could have used any one of these excuses to account for a down year. But Dana Hills hasn't had to do much explaining lately, because it keeps winning.
Dana Hills, 8-6, and 6-2 in the South Coast League, has clinched one of the top three spots in the league and has earned a spot in the Southern Section Division I playoffs.
The Dolphins have won six of their last seven matches, including a five-game league victory Oct. 19 over Mater Dei (10-2, 6-2). The victory tied Dana Hills with Mater Dei for second place in the league behind San Clemente (12-2, 7-1).
Dana Hills plays host to San Clemente on Tuesday in a match that could determine the league champion. Hurlbut is an assistant to San Clemente Coach Rob O'Rear.
"It is fun to play [against Hurlbut] because [Dana Hills players] want to play well against him because they know him," Hollaway said.
Hurlbut, who also coaches the San Clemente boys' team, said he resigned last spring after four years at Dana Hills in order to centralize his coaching jobs at one school. During his tenure at Dana Hills, he led the Dolphins to two league titles and the semifinals of the Southern Section tournament in 1993.
San Clemente has defeated Dana Hills twice this season, in one league and one non-league match. Both matches were at San Clemente, so Tuesday will be the first time Hurlbut has returned to the Dana Hills gym since last spring.
"I definitely will be taking a look at a couple of banners that I had a part in because those four years at Dana Hills were great years," Hurlbut said.
Hollaway is continuing the tradition. Hollaway played outside hitter and setter for the 49ers in 1993 and 1994 after graduating from Mission Viejo High and helping Orange Coast College to two State championships.
Several parents of Dana Hills players saw Hollaway coaching on the local junior circuit recently and urged him to apply.
But Hollaway was up to his eyeballs in commitments. He is still pursuing a degree in physical education at Long Beach and is serving as an assistant for the Golden West College men's team and working at a local restaurant on the weekends. It took a few months of convincing by some persistent parents before Hollaway caved in.
"I want to be a coach and I needed to get the experience of running my own program, making my own decisions on things," he said.
Hollaway was immediately thrown into the deep end. The gym floor was being refinished, so he had to hunt for other places to practice in the preseason. He also had never seen any of the players and had no assistants. Hollaway delayed the start of the varsity practice a week in order to hold a semblance of tryouts for the freshman and the junior varsity and find coaches to take over those teams.
When he finally turned his attention to the varsity, he found that five starters were not returning this season because of graduation or personal reasons. The players who did show up were skeptical.
"I seriously didn't think we would be that good," said Jami Bari, a sophomore outside hitter. "I thought, 'Oh my gosh, it is going to be a tough year.' We had no height left."
Dana Hills' first two matches were predictable--two losses to El Toro and Santa Margarita.
But at the Orange County tournament, Dana Hills advanced to the semifinals before losing to Huntington Beach. The Dolphins since have solidified their position among the county's top teams--their only losses since the tournament have been to top-ranked Huntington Beach (14-0), No. 2 San Clemente and No. 3 Mater Dei.
Much of the success has been because of Bari, who started part time at outside hitter last year, splitting the position with Erika Tillman.
Bari, 5-10, has filled the void left by the departure of Jenny Kessy, a freshman starter for USC. Bari is averaging 20 kills per match.
"I have been kind of surprised," she said. "I kind of felt like coming into this year I kind of had to take over [Kessy's] position, but I didn't expect myself to do this well."
Another key for the Dolphins is the defensive play of 5-6 juniors Michelle Quon and Leslie Punelli, who Hollaway says are the best pair of defensive specialists in the state. Tillman, 5-9, helps all over the court, averaging 13 kills and 14 digs.
"We can't dominate a team, we just don't have the size or power, but we have the ability to frustrate teams because of our defense. We make them hit the ball a few times before they really put it down," Hollaway said.
A keen strategist, Hollaway took a cue from Long Beach State women's Coach Brian Gimmillaro by allowing his defensive specialists to pass and by making minor adjustments in the Dolphins' defensive positioning.
"It was all weird at first, but now that we are used to it, it makes us a lot stronger, defensively," said Megan DeGeus, a 5-9 senior outside hitter and the team captain.
Hollaway also attributes the Dolphins' success to the players' intelligence--four members of the team have a grade-point average of at least 4.0 and most are above 3.5.
"Even though nobody else believed in us, I knew we would do well because we had a lot of strong-willed players and we all really wanted to succeed and we also had a lot of skill that nobody knew about," DeGeus said.
When asked if he was surprised at Dana Hills' success, Hurlbut diplomatically declined to answer.
"I am kind of proud of them," Hurlbut said. "No, I am not kind of proud of them, I am very proud of them, except when I am on the other side of the net."