Kheng Lim was not shocked when the Verdugo Hills High boys' volleyball team lost to Belmont early last week.
But he was surprised at his classmates' reaction to the defeat the next day.
"Everyone was getting on our tail," Lim said. "Everyone expected us to pick up where we left off last year. There's more pressure this year."
Indeed, success has bred high expectations at Verdugo Hills, where the volleyball team's performance last season provided the student body with a welcome respite from the school's otherwise difficult athletic times.
The Dons, with Lim helping to lead the way, reached the City Section 3-A Division finals unbeaten. But they lost to Monroe in the title match and finished the season with a 16-1 record.
This season Lim, who stands 5-foot-7, is one of three returning starters for the Dons, who have no one taller than 5-10. Verdugo Hills rebounded from its five-game defeat against Belmont to sweep Wilson and improve its record to 5-1.
"We're playing pretty good, but it's nothing compared to last year," said Lim, a setter and outside hitter. "We still need to communicate more."
Lim has experience overcoming communication problems. When he came to the United States from Cambodia in 1981, he did not speak English.
"My parents passed away when I was very young," said Lim, who emigrated with an older brother and older sister. "I didn't even know them."
When he arrived in Los Angeles, Lim lived with an uncle's family near Chinatown. Language barriers were difficult to overcome not only at school, but also at home.
"It was pretty tough," he recalled. "We didn't speak the same language. I spoke Cambodian and they spoke Chinese. But over the year, I picked up a little Chinese here and there."
Lim eventually found friends, and common ground, on the basketball court at the Alpine Recreation Center near Chinatown.
He began playing volleyball in 1983 and eventually joined the Los Angeles Chinatown Athletic Assn. The group sponsored a club volleyball team that played in tournaments throughout Southern California.
Several of Lim's club teammates now play at Belmont and Eagle Rock.
"Playing on that team helped me a lot," said Lim, who now lives with his brother's family near Chinatown. "I made a lot of friends at Alpine. It's like a family there."
The Verdugo Hills team was one big happy family last year as it played out a storybook season. Students and faculty members packed the gym for home matches against schools that had tread on the Dons during football and basketball season.
"The crowds really helped us out," Lim said. "When there's a big crowd, that's when I get hyper. That's when the best in me comes out."
Under first-year Coach Dino Stirpe, the team began its roll with early season wins over Sylmar and Birmingham, and continued to play well in tournaments.
Against Van Nuys, the Dons rallied for a five-game victory in a match that lasted 3 1/2 hours. That experience later helped Verdugo Hills win five-game matches over Belmont and Marshall.
The Dons' record was 15-0 entering its City Section 3-A Division semifinal against Venice and, once again, they pulled out a five-game victory.
But it was a costly win.
"That was the best game we ever played but it took everything out of us," Lim said. "Everyone was cramping up and sore."
Two days later, in the championship match at Pepperdine's Firestone Fieldhouse, Verdugo Hills played its worst match of the season and lost in three games.
"We didn't play to our potential," Lim said. "I think we were all satisfied getting to the final."
This year, Lim said he won't be satisfied unless Verdugo Hills wins the 3-A Division title. Standing in the way are vastly improved teams from Eagle Rock and Marshall.
"I'm more of a leader this year," he said. "Teams are concentrating on me, but that's opening things up for other players.
"This team is not as good as last year's yet, but we're capable of getting there."