Edwin Yau’s claim to fame in sports was playing intramural volleyball at UCLA. He once worked for the Department of Children and Family Services as a social worker. In 2017, he arrived at Los Angeles Lincoln High as a pupil services and attendance counselor. And, later, he volunteered to be the volleyball coach.
Yau started recruiting kids in hallways and at lunch tables. He put up posters and handed out fliers. Anyone he saw that was tall he’d ask, “Would you like to play volleyball?”
He recruited one player before a soccer game. He recruited another player off the basketball team.
More than 80% of Lincoln’s students qualify for a federally funded free or reduced lunch program. From its 2017-18 school profile, the student body included 838 students identified as Latino and 232 as Asian.
At Lincoln, none of the students on the volleyball team play for a club team. His setter is 5-foot-4. Two of his players were born in Vietnam. His most talented player was academically ineligible for two years. Yau once made players who were late for practice write essays explaining the importance of being on time.
Still, in 2017, Yau’s first season, the boys’ volleyball team won the City Section Division IV championship. The girls’ team won the Division IV title last fall. The boys are now the top seed in Division IV going into Tuesday’s semifinal match against Sherman Oaks CES.
Like most City Section coaches, Yau tries to balance his desire to win with what he sees as a responsibility to pass along life lessons that will help his players when they become adults.
He admits, “I’m learning how to lead. I’ve been so close to giving up on kids, but I can’t give up on them.”
Volleyball has become an escape for many of his players. In practice, they smile, giggle, sweat and laugh while leaving behind the worries of school, home life, sibling responsibilities, parental expectations.
Jason Guan, a 5-9 senior, was a basketball player whom Yau kept asking to try volleyball. Guan finally relented and learned a powerful lesson: Don’t be afraid to try something new.
“When I first joined, I was really bad,” he said. “I could not hit a ball down. I could not pass.”
He improved and became a starter. Volleyball replaced basketball as his favorite sport.
“If I had never tried volleyball, I would never had this experience,” he said.
Trong Vong, a 5-8 senior with a 3.75 grade-point average, is headed to Cal State Fullerton to study mechanical engineering. He came here from Vietnam when he was 4. His parents speak only Vietnamese. He’s an all-league honoree.
“When I play volleyball,” he said, “it takes my mind off things.”
Sophomore Corbin Hernandez is the setter who sometimes speaks up at the wrong time. He and his coach have been having an ongoing discussion about when it’s appropriate to make a joke.
“I’ve been learning to get mature,” he said.
Christian Lopez is the tallest, at 6-2, and best athlete on the team. Volleyball has helped motivate him to stay eligible and graduate in June. He hopes one day to be a barber in Cypress Park.
Yau, 32, took the team to watch “Avengers: Endgame” as a group two weeks ago and paid the admission. He also has bought pizza for players. What else is he supposed to do with his $2,200 coaching stipend (before taxes)?
Yau, who is married and working on his doctorate at USC, is employed by the Los Angeles Unified School District, which could move him to another school at any time.
He has decided that this will be his final season coaching because he has too many responsibilities and commitments. But he’s torn.
“I want to do everything with excellence,” he said. “I’m trying to teach the pursuit of excellence.”
The ups and downs, successes and failures happen almost daily.
“I’m teaching them about discipline,” he said. “How you do one thing is how you do everything in life. If you’re able to commit to a sport and put yourself toward something, you can take those skills and transfer them.”
Winning a City title would feel good, but the journey is even more important for coach and players.