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Yearning for a Title : Wendt Has Won Everything Except a Championship

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Melissa Wendt is standing ankle-deep in the Pacific Ocean a few days before Thanksgiving, trying to smile through her shivers. The wind keeps whipping her wavy, blond ponytail in front of her face and the beach is deserted save for a few hard-core surfers in full wet suits.

Wendt, a volleyball player at Huntington Beach High, also is trying to console a photographer and reporter who have requested her time for a photo shoot and interview--no, it’s not too cold, she assures them; and yes, this is fun.

“Thank you for coming,” she keeps shouting over the waves.

Apparently, no one ever told Wendt that star athletes are supposed to condescend to the press--deigning to provide a few moments of time then affecting a bored manner during the interview.

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Wendt, who recently made an oral commitment to attend UCLA, has the certification that typically breeds affectation. Consider the first-team awards she has piled up: Three from the Sunset League, two from The Times Orange County, three from the Southern Section, and two from the U.S. Volleyball Assn.

Despite the accolades, pretentiousness sticks to Wendt about as well as the receding tide.

After the photographer finishes the hour-long session on the chilly beach, Wendt suggests heading across the street to her favorite bakery for her usual snack--hot apple cider and a bran muffin.

She begins talking about her athletic family and breaks into an impersonation of her father’s running form. She hitches up her shorts, squints her eyes and swings her arms wildly before bursting into laughter.

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But there is one thing about which Wendt doesn’t laugh--despite all her volleyball achievements, she has never won a State high school or national club title.

Wendt, a 6-foot-2 outside hitter, led Huntington Beach to its first State final in school history last year, when the Oilers lost to Mountain View St. Francis in the Division II championship match.

This season, the Oilers were ranked No. 1 in the nation by USA Today and finished the regular season 17-0. But Huntington Beach was upset by Newport Harbor in the quarterfinals of the Southern Section Division I tournament on Nov. 11. In a controversial decision by the Southern Section, the Oilers were skipped over for an at-large berth to the State tournament.

Wendt, 17, sits picking at the raisins in her bran muffin while mulling over the fact that four other Southern Section teams would begin play in the State tournament that night.

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“This is not the way I pictured my senior volleyball year ending,” she says.

Wendt has come frustratingly close to several national club championships as well. She led the Anaheim Magnum Volleyball Club 16-and-under team to the silver medal at the U.S. Junior Olympics at Austin, Tex., in 1994 and she led the club’s 18-and-under team to the U.S. Junior Olympic bronze medal in Orlando, Fla., last summer.

This club season, Wendt will compete for the Newport Volleyball Club on an 18-and-under team that is expected to be very competitive in major tournaments. Wendt looks forward to the opportunity.

“When I win, I am going to go crazy. I have been on the other side,” she says.

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Wendt grew up playing basketball and soccer, in which she dominated at goalkeeper because of her height--"I just reached up and covered the whole goal with my arms,” she said. Her father, Mike, who played basketball and baseball at Cal Poly Pomona from 1966-70, coached her in basketball from when she was 8 to 14.

As a child, Wendt believed she would play basketball in college, although she never idolized any college or professional players.

“This is really weird, but I’ve never really had any heroes,” she says, then laughs. “Maybe Wonder Woman.”

Wendt started playing volleyball when she was about 11, but never dropped basketball. After school, she would attend practices for both sports. The only drawback was that sometimes she would get the skills confused--catching the volleyball and jumping wrong in basketball practice.

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But her prowess on the volleyball court quickly became apparent. She led the Huntington Beach Sunset Volleyball Club’s 14-and-under team to a 13th-place finish in the 1992 U.S. Junior Olympics at Albuquerque, N.M., and was selected a third-team all-American. She is one of few volleyball players to achieve all-American status in three age groups.

As a freshman at Huntington Beach, she helped the Oiler varsity volleyball team to a second-place finish in league and to the semifinals of the Southern Section Division II tournament. That was also the first year Cammy Ciarelli, a player on the Women’s Professional Beach Volleyball Assn. tour, and her husband, Rocky, began their tenure as Huntington Beach co-coaches.

“I would not be the player that I am today if it weren’t for them,” Wendt says. “They would just take any group of girls and turn them into a rad volleyball team.”

Wendt planned to play basketball her freshman year at Huntington Beach, but a knee injury forced her to sit out the high school basketball and the club volleyball seasons, which run concurrently. After rehabilitation, volleyball became her primary focus.

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“Volleyball is such a quick sport, you’re never going to hit the ball in the same spot, ever,” she says.

For nearly three years, Wendt has taken little time off from the sport. Because the Oilers lost earlier than expected in playoffs, Wendt had about a week to relax before the club season started.

“I was so bored. There was nothing to do,” she says. “You get so in tuned to a high-paced life, so when you have time to slow down you really don’t want to.”

Wendt attacks academics with similar vigor. She has a 3.8 grade-point average and her favorite class is science. She grows animated when she describes how she recently dissected a rat, stretching out its small intestine to measure it--"It was the coolest thing ever. The only thing bad about it was the smell.”

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She was enthralled when she watched a videotape of her friend’s knee surgery. She also tried to stay awake for the removal of her own wisdom teeth because she wanted to watch the surgery on a monitor, but the local anesthetic didn’t work and she was given general anesthesia.

Wendt hopes some day to go to medical school--"I want to change the world, basically, that’s it, I want to heal the world,” she says.

Night has fallen outside the bakery and Wendt jogs back across busy Pacific Coast Highway. She turns before climbing into her sporty car.

“Goodby!” she calls, “Thanks for coming!”

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