Marissa Booker made one of the most difficult decisions in her life three months ago. Three years ago, she never saw herself making such a bold move.
Booker said goodbye to Vanguard University, a place that allowed her to grow so much as a student, player and coach.
She earned her degree and master's in education at Vanguard. She starred in volleyball at the school for three years. She coached at the school for five years, the final three as the women's head coach.
The opportunity to pursue her dream is why she left.
"I just feel like I have such a calling to special education," said Booker, who plans to get her special education credential in May. "I have always wanted to be a teacher ever since I can remember. It wouldn't be fair to Vanguard to be a college coach and go into teaching for my first two years."
Booker stepped down from the college coaching ranks to take over a high school girls' program. Not just any program, but Corona del Mar, one of the volleyball hotbeds in Southern California.
Since being in charge of her first high school varsity team, Booker has noticed a difference between Vanguard and CdM.
"In college, parents send their kids to college," Booker said. "In high school, parents drop their kids off [at] practice."
How Booker gets her athletes has changed. What has not is how she builds relationships with every player and mentors them.
Fourteen are members of the varsity team. All 14 have made an impression on the new coach.
"They're so driven," Booker said. "They are very driven and want to succeed. Not that Vanguard didn't have that. It's just … they want to be so good."
The group at CdM this season reminds Booker of her former teams. Do not hold it against her that those teams were as a player at Back Bay rival Newport Harbor in the late 1990s. She went by Marissa Cothran back then.
She played on CIF Southern Section Division I-AA and CIF State Division I championship teams. She knows what a championship-caliber team looks like, what it has in its DNA.
She played with the likes of April Ross, Brenda Waterman, Krista Dill, Heather Cullen and Kathy LaVold. They all played roles in helping Newport Harbor win three straight section titles from 1997-99 and Booker said the key to the success on the court was unity.
"Our team was extremely close," said Booker, who graduated in 1999 from Newport Harbor. "A majority of us still talk to each other and are still friends.
"Our team [at CdM] is very close. Most of them have grown up together. Most of their parents grew up together. It's just not assembling some team together. They have known each other and have deep roots with each other."
It is up to Booker to make sure that the Sea Kings blossom into a section title contender this fall. She believes they will be in the mix with the likes of Marymount of Los Angeles, Laguna Beach, Vista Murrieta and Valencia of Valencia.
She knows the expectations are high at CdM. The Sea Kings received a No. 2 ranking in the CIF Southern Section Division I-A preseason coaches' poll. The team returns a handful of players like senior middle blocker Britton Taylor and junior outside hitter Grace Kennedy off a team that reached the Division I-A semifinals last season under then-coach Darryl Gan.
Booker replaced Gan, who stepped down because he and his wife were expecting their first child in April.
While at the helm, Gan led CdM to section title-match and state regional playoff appearances in each of his first two seasons. In three seasons under Gan, the Sea Kings won three Pacific Coast League championships and 76% of their matches.
Like Booker, Gan was from Newport Harbor. Who says a Sailor cannot help their rival school?
Gan guided the Sea Kings last season past Newport Harbor in the Battle of the Bay for the first time in six years, sweeping the visiting Sailors. The coach on the losing end of the city championship was Dan Glenn, Booker's former coach.
When the Sea Kings play at Newport Harbor on Sept. 17, Booker will go up against a coach to whom she owes a lot.
"Dan is a phenomenal human being and such a great coach. I was so fortunate to have him as a coach," said Booker, a captain and setter for Glenn. "There are definitely things that in the ways he does things that I have brought to the program [at CdM], whether it may be certain drills or [speaking to the team before every practice and going through former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden's book].
"[Glenn] does everything for a reason. It's not just like, 'Let's throw a practice together because we need to make sure our girls are practicing from 3 to 5.' He has a purpose for everything that he does."
Compared to Glenn, Booker has a long way to go in the coaching game. Glenn has logged almost as many years as a coach as Booker has lived.
Glenn is entering his 26th year at Newport Harbor. Booker is 29.
Unlike last year, CdM and Newport Harbor are not meeting in the regular-season finale. The match is a lot earlier.
Booker already knows which team her old teammates will root for in the Battle of the Bay.
"I think they will be on the Newport side," Booker said with a smile.
"Everybody is pretty excited because they know what the volleyball community is like here. Yeah, it's our rival, but I also think it's an excitement that I'm here and get to experience that [rivalry] again."