Janet McKay, a Chaminade High volleyball player, pushed a dink shot into the net during a recent match against Agoura. McKay attempted the finesse move in part to catch Agoura off balance. A second reason was the presence of Agoura's Shannon Mathew.
"Hey, you don't have to worry about her," Chaminade Coach Mike Lynn told McKay.
Well, actually, there were about seven inches to worry about. Odds were that the 5-foot, 8-inch McKay had little chance of rocketing a shot past her 6-3 opponent.
Moments later McKay beat the odds. The junior middle blocker ripped a spike right past Mathew. And by the conclusion of Chaminade's five-game victory, McKay had proved a better spiker and blocker than Mathew.
Maybe Lynn was right. Maybe there isn't anything to worry about.
Yet, in a sport where most teams have at least one player over six feet tall, Chaminade has only two players who stand 5-8. The rest are shorter.
When the Eagles walk onto the court they don't look like a successful varsity team--JV maybe, but not varsity.
"It can be deceptive when you look at them," said Agoura Coach Steve Gazzaniga, who should know: His team has lost to Chaminade twice this season.
Chaminade won the Calabasas tournament, finished second in the Serra tournament in San Diego and has compiled an 8-2 record by compensating for lack of height with superlative defense.
Whenever a group gets together to play volleyball at the beach or in a backyard, invariably the small players are relegated to the back row where they're required to hit floaters or retrieve balls hit out of bounds.
Those who play in the front tell the shorties, "go play defense."
The Eagles have taken those instructions to heart.
"I think I have one of the best defensive teams I've ever had," Lynn said.
In volleyball, defense is passing. Teams can spike over Chaminade's small blockers--rather easily, in fact--but the point isn't won until the ball hits the floor. That's where the Eagles excel--diving on the floor, digging a spike and passing the ball to the setter to keep rallies alive.
"The fundamental part of the whole game, particularly in high school, is passing," Thousand Oaks Coach Ron Beick said. "You have to have good passers and, more importantly, consistent passers to win."
Chaminade has its share of outstanding passers.
"When we played them, we just hammered some balls," Gazzaniga said. "They didn't just dig them, they dug them in a good setting position."
One of the best Chaminade passers this year has also been one of the hardest to see: Nadine Nonaka, whom Lynn said is 5-0. A sophomore back-row player, Nonaka is frequently inserted late into games to make sure Chaminade's passes are on target.
But passing isn't the only area where the team excels; Chaminade also has improved its serving. Last season, that aspect of the game cost the Eagles their third consecutive San Fernando League championship.
Louisville won the league title by rallying from four points down in the final game of the match after the Eagles blew successive serves on game point at 14-10.
Lynn forced his players to work on serving over the summer and approves of the progress they've made.
"We have to attack, we have to serve aggressively," he said. "If you keep getting the serves in, the pressure is going to be on the receiving team and hopefully they will crack."
Shrewd strategy dictates serving to an opponent's weakest passer, a tactic Lynn insists upon.
"They pick out your weakness and serve at it," Gazzaniga said. "A lot of times that will limit what you can do."
In a recent match against Louisville, the Royals brought in a new player to pass. Noticing her nervousness, Lynn instructed his players to hit her with serves, and Chaminade scored two quick points.
Tough serves do more than garner an occasional ace; serves can disrupt an opponent's offense.
"They moved us around a lot," Gazzaniga said. "Once we got in a passing rut, everyone was trying too hard to make the perfect pass."
At that point in a match, Chaminade usually takes control behind the play of Anna Suarez and Amy Miller. Suarez, a 5-7, three-year starter, has been Chaminade's most reliable player this season. Whether Chaminade needs a big spike, a diving save or a string of good serves, Suarez has come through.
"She is one of the strongest players in the Valley," Calabasas Coach Kristy Olsen said.
Suarez isn't a typical smash-and-crash hitter with two types of spikes; fast and faster. She has developed a finesse game, using off-speed shots and dinks that leave defenders frozen while the ball drops to the ground.
"She jumps so well, and she has such a strong hit, that you have to respect the power," Gazzaniga said. "Yet, the off-speed catches you off guard. You don't know what to expect from her."
Miller has been just as dependable, if not as recognizable.
"Amy goes unnoticed much of the time," Olsen said, "but if it weren't for Amy, those hitters wouldn't be getting those nice easy sets. She definitely deserves a lot of the credit."
Part of Miller's problem, like that of her team's, is that at 5-3, she gets overlooked. "You look at her and she's not as impressive to watch," Gazzaniga said. "She's not really tall, she doesn't jump too well."
But, like her teammates, she is effective. "She is, at this point, playing as well as any setter I've ever seen at Chaminade," Lynn said.
And because of her, Suarez and the rest of the tiny but lethal Eagles, opposing teams are finding much to worry about.