Ever since volleyball started at the high school level, the sport has been dominated by schools near the ocean. From Malibu to San Clemente, the best spikers, setters and passers played on hardwood during the school year and on local beaches during the summer.
Urban schools such as Bell and Marshall had to be content with winning their respective league and conference races. The big prize--a City Section title--never seemed to be within reach.
All that changed, however, when two coaches--Marshall's Margi Donatella and Bell's Mike Mayfield--built winning programs at their City Section schools.
This season, Bell and Marshall crashed what once was an all-Westside beach party.
Although two Westside schools--University and Fairfax--won the championships this season, nothing can diminish what Bell and Marshall accomplished. The Bell Eagles (16-2) won the Southeastern Conference title for the seventh time in eight years before losing to University in the 4-A finals--Bell's first appearance ever.
Under first-year coach Bob Avila, Marshall (16-2) claimed the Northern Conference title for the fourth consecutive season and played in the 3-A finals--losing this year to Fairfax--for the third consecutive time.
"I don't think we're going to have a setback [losing in the finals] ," Avila said. "Sixty percent of the guys play club ball and we had a strong junior varsity squad this year. Last year we lost nine of 12 players, but every one came through this year by adding a little extra work in the gym."
Bell players were gratified just to reach the finals.
"It didn't matter whether we won or lost," said Bell outside-hitter Dickie Purcell.
Bell and Marshall, which have grown accustomed to playing the first match of the season against each other, have developed a school rivalry.
"We use the match as a tuneup for the regular season," said Mayfield, who started the program in 1986 and has watched its steady improvement. "But the rivalry has produced some great matches over the years."
Bell and Marshall have both had successful programs in the past.
"We've created a good opportunity for the kids to play volleyball year in and year out," said former Marshall coach Margi Donatella, who guided the Barristers to a 47-2 record in three years.
Marshall won the 3-A championship in 1993 and 1994 under Donatella. Before she resigned in 1994 for personal reasons, Donatella led the Barristers to two consecutive 3-A championships and laid the groundwork for this season's finalist team.
With Donatella's departure and the loss to Fairfax in this year's finals, senior Joe Manahan wonders if this might be the end of an era.
"We should have won this game because it might be the last time we reach the finals in a long time," said Manahan, a middle-blocker.
Donatella thinks differently.
"If [the kids] continue to play club volleyball, then the program will be fine for a long time."
The Barristers were favored to win their third consecutive title. But the Lions erased Marshall's hopes by defeating them 3-1.
Marshall, which was strong at every position, was led by the 6-foot-5 Manahan and outside hitter Matt Holle. Manahan, who averaged 17 kills and eight blocks a match, and Holle, who averaged eight kills, were voted Northern League most valuable players.
"We started the season with a loss to Bell," said Manahan, who will attend UC Santa Barbara in the fall. "But we still knew we would have good a year, because we had a good preseason."
Bell enjoyed another outstanding season.
The Eagles had five All-Southeastern Conference first-team players, including most valuable players Purcell and Rudy Flores.
Purcell averaged 16 kills and nine blocks a match. Flores, a middle blocker, averaged 17 kills and seven blocks.
"It's nice being [one of the best] players in the league," said Flores, who is being recruited by Cal Poly Pomona. "I accomplished my goal by working hard in the gym."
Added Purcell: "Rudy is an awesome player. He's dedicated and has the desire to play volleyball."
All this wouldn't be possible if Mayfield hadn't decided to start the volleyball program nine years ago.
"Starting this program was hard," said Mayfield, who has a lifetime record of 146-22. "No Bell players had experience and no recreation club to play for."
Mayfield's best years were 1990-92, when Bell won 57 of 60 games. The Eagles were 12-5 in 1993. This season, Bell excelled at the 4-A level by playing team volleyball.
When Bell fell behind in sets, which happened often, the unit stuck together with setter Alex Lanos leading the charge.
"Lanos made so many things happen," Mayfield said. "He touched the ball every single time. When we were down, he would make the extra effort to get things going."
Marshall is working to solidify its future.
"We have enough talent to perform well next year," Avila said. "I came into this season thinking we'll be OK and I'll go into next season thinking the same way."
If sophomores Gio Manahan and Kevin Holle--Joe and Matt's younger brothers--step up, the Barristers have a good chance of avenging their title defeat.
"We'll have to work hard in the off-season," Gio said. "We're developing. We'll be good."