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Standing Together

Verdugo Hills boys' volleyball team is a study in diversity

May 01, 2003|Paul McLeod | Times Staff Writer

Visitors to Tujunga Verdugo Hills High are greeted by a wooden sign in the school's main office that spells out "Welcome" in 16 languages.

Members of the boys' volleyball team speak most of them.

These 12 players, who for the most part are first-born Americans or recent immigrants, could probably teach the United Nations how to get along.

"We all work together and we all have fun together," said the team's setter, Wilson Chan, a first-born American whose family lives near Chinatown.

Like about a quarter of the 2,300 students at Verdugo Hills, located in the Northeast San Fernando Valley, Chan rides a bus each day to reach this remote outpost of the Los Angeles Unified School District because his neighborhood school is overcrowded.

Extended travel time means shorter practices and additional strain on the team, Coach Will Reinhart said, but Verdugo Hills (10-3) had its best record in 12 seasons and finished second in the Sunset Six League.

The Dons will be making their fifth consecutive appearance in the City Section playoffs beginning Tuesday.

Reinhart estimates he has encountered more than 30 languages in his seven years as coach at the school. Much of that, he concludes, is because of busing, which brings students from all walks of life and all parts of the sprawling school district to the campus, which is nestled against the chaparral-covered foothills that separate the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys.

Reinhart, a former setter who graduated from Verdugo Hills in 1987, also coached the girls' volleyball team, which is a two-time defending league champion. It, too, was culturally diverse.

"It's uncommon for me to have an American-born kid on my teams," said Reinhart, a history teacher whose classroom is draped with maps and flags from around the world.

Other teams on campus are also melting pots, according to school administrators.

"Everyone feels very comfortable with each other here," said Armenian-born outside hitter Adam Ovasapyan, who began playing volleyball two years ago. "It's a very family-oriented team, like a club, and we can act just like we do around anyone else in our own families."

Assistant Coach Ivan Martinez, who was born in Mexico and raised in South Gate, is a 1999 graduate of Verdugo Hills.

"English is the common language that each of them has, but you will hear all different languages being spoken out there at once," Reinhart said.

The team's plays are disguised by being called in the Filipino language of Tagalog. "Using Spanish is too common in L.A.," reasoned back-row specialist Eric Lamano, who lives in Sylmar and is of Filipino descent.

Reinhart remembers a match a couple of weeks ago at Sun Valley Poly. The Dons were struggling and needed a timeout. In the huddle, Ovasapyan challenged his teammates in Armenian to play better. The literal translation, Reinhart said, is unprintable, but the players got the message and Verdugo Hills rallied to win.

"It was what we needed at that moment," Reinhart said. "We were so tense, it just brought some humor to the situation and got the guys to relax."

Those who attend or who have graduated from Verdugo Hills say the school has made a difference in their lives.

Martinez said when he was a student he fell in love with the open spaces around the campus because of its contrast to the blacktop-covered playgrounds and chain-link fenced campuses of many inner-city schools.

Outside hitter Salim Kordab, a first-born American of Lebanese, Mexican and Irish heritage, travels 45 minutes each way from his home near Burbank to attend Verdugo Hills.

"I like it here," he said. "I keep my grades up and I stay out of trouble."

Two years ago, a friend talked Kordab into trying volleyball and Kordab recently set a school record for kills in a season. A senior, he hopes to continue playing at Pierce College.

When Chan's family came to the United States from Hong Kong in the mid-1980s, it settled near Dodger Stadium and his uncle rode a bus to Verdugo Hills. To this day, Chan said, about 25 family members and friends have eschewed neighborhood schools in order to attend Verdugo Hills.

The diverse cultures on campus also provide unique learning experiences.

Canadian-born Ben MacAuley moved to Tujunga about four years ago when his parents took jobs in the area. A burley middle blocker who also played for the Dons' football team, he was born in Saskatchewan where, he said, segregation was accepted and he grew up with "preconceived" notions about other races.

"I had never heard of an Armenian," he said.

Setter Gabriel Nguyen, who was born in the United States, lives in Pacoima with his parents, who are from Vietnam. "The only place I speak English outside of school," he said, "is with my friends [on this team]."

Ovasapyan remembers the time he and some teammates caught a ride home after a match from Lamano. Ovasapyan's mother wouldn't let Lamano leave their house without thanking him by preparing a huge Armenian meal.

"He had no idea what it was, but he ate it anyway," Ovasapyan said.

Lamano believes he and his teammates will look back on their days together and realize they had something very special. "It's fun how everyone is so different and yet we can relate to each other's culture."

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