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The Turning Point : Since Mid-'70s, Laguna Beach Has Ruled Boys' Volleyball


LAGUNA BEACH — Mike Hurlbut, the San Clemente boys' volleyball coach, wanted to exorcise some ghosts.

Hurlbut has watched Laguna Beach torture his alma mater all too often. In 1981, Laguna Beach even dangled a Southern Section title before the Tritons' eyes before magically snapping it from their grasp.

So Hurlbut was understandably ebullient after his team beat its host in a five-game nonleague thriller last season.

He was ready to gloat to Laguna Beach alum Adam Johnson, his good friend and former USC volleyball teammate, who sat in the stands and watched Hurlbut's short-lived celebration.

"It was sweet," Hurlbut said. "Then A.J. comes down after the match and all he does is point to the banners. He'll always have that on me."

Five section championship banners for boys' volleyball reside in the Laguna Beach gymnasium. No team has won more major division titles.

Twenty years ago, the Artists won their first championship. In the next eight years, they won four more, establishing a tradition that is without peer in the county. Although the enrollment has generally varied between only 600-900 students, the Artists have produced some of the county's best players and coaches.

Among the honor roll members:

* Dusty Dvorak, who played setter for the gold-medal winning 1984 U.S Olympic volleyball team.

* Johnson, a former USC All-American and one of the top players on the Assn. of Volleyball Professionals beach tour.

* Oz Simmons, who played at USC, then coached Dana Hills to the 1986 Division 4-A boys' volleyball championship.

And there's Matt Albade, Jeff Blue, Rudy Dvorak, Scott Fortune, Leif Hanson, Lance Stewart . . .

The list goes on, and so does the tradition. And it all began with Rolf.

The beginning

Rolf Engen didn't invent Laguna Beach volleyball. But he built the program's foundation.

Engen was officially only an assistant coach for two seasons at Laguna Beach--1974 and '75--and Mike Duncan, a math teacher at Laguna Beach, was the head coach.

But the players realized Engen's impact.

"All the credit for this program's success should go to Rolf Engen," Simmons said.

In 1974, Simmons knew Engen was one of the few highly knowledgeable volleyball coaches around, so he and teammate Albade asked him to coach the high school team. With a little persuasion, Engen accepted.

Engen's volleyball experience first expanded after he earned a basketball scholarship to play for John Wooden at UCLA in 1950.

Engen was a top-notch basketball player from Santa Ana High and Santa Ana College. When an injury sidelined him, he began playing more volleyball.

But to this day, Engen, who is 65 and has retired in Park City, Utah, credits much of his volleyball success to Wooden.

"In 1974, we lost in the semifinals and finished third," Engen said. "Physically, the guys did a pretty good job. But mentally, I didn't do them justice and teach them what I learned from Coach Wooden.

"When I came back for the second season in '75, we worked on the mental aspect of the game. We wanted them to be focused solely on one play at a time."

Said Simmons, who is in his 13th year coaching at Dana Hills: "We were trained by Rolf just to do our best. He didn't look at the scoreboard.

"He just said 'You guys do your job and be gentlemen afterward.' "

The business-like approach netted the Artists a 22-0 record, and they defeated Santa Monica for the section championship, 15-5, 15-8, 17-19, 15-13, on May 30, 1975, in front of 1,100 at UC Irvine.

"Even 20 years ago at Laguna, volleyball was a pretty big sport," said Dvorak, who plays on the four-man beach volleyball tour. "We probably attracted more fans than the football team."

Said Simmons: "We did get big crowds. For some reason, it was sort of the social thing to do in the community. It wasn't just our parents, but even, well, maybe you would call them the yuppies of that age, they would come to the games too."

And they would cheer for college-bound players such as Simmons (USC), Albade (UCLA), Cliff Amsden (San Diego State), Casey Armstrong (UC Santa Barbara) and Dusty Dvorak (USC).

Dusty was the first of three standout Dvorak brothers at Laguna Beach. Rudy (USC) and Drake (San Diego State) would follow along with sister Diedra (Stanford).

The second generation of Dvoraks already is making an impact. Michelle Christ, an All-Pacific Coast League selection on the Laguna Beach girls' team last season, is the daughter of the oldest Dvorak sister, Marie.

But the Dvoraks weren't the only family that kept the tradition going. Although 1975 was Engen's final season, his son Kip helped Laguna Beach win its second title in 1977.

So was it was easier to win championships 20 years ago?

Well, Karch Kiraly, the Michael Jordan of volleyball, helped Santa Barbara win the championship in 1978 and was named section player of the year. That was his only title.

San Clemente defeated Santa Barbara to win the title in 1976, and Santa Barbara didn't even reach the finals in 1977 when Laguna Beach defeated Santa Barbara San Marcos.

The spike

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