Tom Pestolesi is no newbie.
He coached volleyball for 15 years in high school before starting the volleyball program at Irvine Valley College in 1991. But with more than 30 years of coaching experience, Pestolesi is the first to admit he is still learning.
Pestolesi's women's volleyball team started out 6-0 this season before stumbling a bit early in Orange Empire Conference play. The Lasers, ranked No. 5 in the state earlier this season, went 3-3 in their first six conference matchups, and their state ranking fell to No. 14.
Pestolesi, himself an All-American volleyball player at the University of Hawaii 40 years ago, blames himself for the team's recent struggles. While the Orange Empire Conference is one of the toughest in the state – five teams are ranked in the state's top 25 – Pestolesi says there's more to it.
"Part of it is the conference, but it's been difficult for us to mesh as a group," he said. "We think we've figured out a few things, but I told them part of that is my fault."
But what Pestolesi blames himself for has nothing to do with Xs and Os on the court. It has everything to do with life off the court.
"Every year we take a pre-season trip, as silly as that sounds, and you get the team bonding," Pestolesi said. "You make certain kids room with certain kids so they just get to know each other. We've got kids from all over the place, they're not just all local kids.
"We tried to set something up and it just didn't work on the schedule, so I said, 'Oh well, we'll be all right,' and I learned a tough lesson. Coach screwed up. It's important for the kids to get to know each other off the court, and every team that's been closer off the court has played better on the court."
The Lasers were 9-3 overall going into Friday's match against Riverside, and certainly has the players – and the time – to make a run at a conference title. They are led by their three sophomore team captains – Pestolesi calls them "The A-Team."
Avae Masaniai, Allison Cook and Alex Goodman.
"They all went to Edison High School, they're best buddies, they car pool to school, they're very close off the court," Pestolesi said. "They're actually tri-captains because they all do the things you look for in a captain, leading on and off the court. They work hard and they're respected by their teammates. They earned it."
All three bring something a little different, but complement each other on the court.
"Ally's been a starting outside hitter for the past two years," Pestolesi said. "She's played as our main attacker and is leading us in kills. Alex is a DS (defensive specialist) for us. She doesn't get as much time on the court but is a great leader.
"Avae has improved a ton this year. She made a commitment to her fitness, and dedicated herself to becoming as good a volleyball player as she can be, and she's played great."
Pestolesi also mentioned the contributions made by a number of freshmen, including setters Christine Connolly and Danielle Boyette, Alexis Radecki, who leads the team in blocks, middle blocker Haley Whyte and libero Becky Moodie.
Pestolesi also coaches the men's volleyball team at IVC, and he's guided them to three state titles. The women have finished as high as second in state, but Pestolesi has never gotten them to the top.
"Absolutely, I think about it," he said. "When you're younger you worry about things like that. And when I first was hired at Irvine Valley I said we're going to bring championships here, blah, blah, blah. But I was only 38 when I was hired full-time.
"It's hard, it's hard to win a title in junior high. It's hard to win any championship. You need luck, good players, you need things to fall into place, you need to be injury-free. But I don't worry about that. If we do [win a state title], that's great. But I'm a process guy. If we get good players and we as coaches do the things we need to do to make them better, everything takes care of itself."
A loss to Fullerton a couple weeks ago made the thought of a state championship this year more of a pipe dream. It was the Lasers' second conference loss in a row, and things were not going well both on and off the court.
Pestolesi, though, said it might have been just want the team needed.
"We were disappointed at the time, but sometimes you've got to suffer disappointments to gain some things," he said. "As much as a bummer as it was, I think in the long run it's going to benefit us."