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Salesian High's volleyball team playing above its head

For the East L.A. school's volleyball squad, court smarts and persistence make up for inexperience and a lack of height. The lessons extend off the court.

July 27, 2009|David Wharton

A troublesome thought found its way to Erwin Ramirez just before the championship match, as if sailing on currents of warm air inside the gymnasium, carried by the cheers of the crowd.

How are we going to pull this one out?

It wasn't the first time he and the rest of the Salesian High team had felt like underdogs.

They seemed all wrong for volleyball, too short, most of them Latino kids from East L.A., where people don't grow up around the game. Their coach, a black math teacher, learned the basics by reading library books.

Though the Mustangs had built a respectable program on sweat and guile -- the court as a geometry puzzle, footwork like a ballroom dance -- they inevitably drew glances.

"All the other teams are a bunch of white guys," said Erwin, who stands no more than 5 feet 9, even with his hair cut in a high-top fade. "Everybody's taller than me."

Now, venturing to suburban Orange County for a shot at the title, Salesian faced volleyball royalty in the form of St. Margaret's of San Juan Capistrano.

Big kids from a beach town. A team that had Karch Kiraly, a legend in the sport, coaching two of his sons on the roster.

As the match began, Salesian struggled to control both nerves and a ball that knuckled in the heat. The Mustangs eked out a win in the first set, then lost the second.

With momentum slipping away, Erwin needed to be sharper with his passes, and Bernard Luna -- at 6 feet 4, one of Salesian's few tall players -- had to get settled at the net.

"You're just trying to find a vibe," the lanky hitter said.

But the score was only part of the story that day. When people talk about Salesian's run at the championship, they talk about an unlikely coach and a group of young men for whom volleyball has become more than a game.

::

Elliott Walker might be the last person in the room you'd figure for a volleyball coach. His compact body and beard don't fit the stereotype. But watch the 42-year-old conduct practice, alert to each detail, striding onto the court when a hitter misfires.

"Nino," he barks, putting a hand on the kid's shoulder. "This way."

Right step, crossover left, right again -- they do the footwork together, over and over.

"How do we win?" Walker calls out.

His history with the sport began casually, with family picnics in the 1980s. As a high school student, he volunteered to help with gym classes at Santa Isabel Elementary in Boyle Heights and the principal asked him to coach the girls' team.

It seemed easy enough until Santa Isabel ran into a squad that knew how to pass, set and hit. Walker realized: Oh, there's more to this game.

An avid reader, he turned to the library. There, books by Pepperdine Coach Marv Dunphy and UCLA's Al Scates espoused tactics that appealed to a young man whose interests reached beyond sports to math and science.

"That's how it started," he said.

In the years that followed, Walker graduated from college and taught at Santa Isabel. Until he started a boys' team, only girls played volleyball in East L.A.

Salesian hired him in 1995 and he has become a fixture at the small Catholic school, also in Boyle Heights. He took a break for graduate studies before returning this season, asking fellow math teacher Wayne Teng to be his co-coach.

"It's very, very difficult to develop a volleyball culture where there hasn't been any," said Dunphy, who has watched from Pepperdine and calls Salesian "one of the great stories in our sport today."

Though Walker preaches devotion -- practices run long and players are encouraged to join his club team in the off-season -- something else shapes his coaching style: memories of those boyhood picnics.

"A lot of my kids come from homes that are dysfunctional or maybe the parents work two jobs or there's no dad," he said. "They want to belong to something."

When team members come across one another between classes, they embrace. When a player slumps off the court during workouts, exhausted from running sideline to sideline, a teammate holds him up until he recovers.

Family means everything to Walker, a single father who has a 12-year-old daughter and has served as legal custodian to several children from troubled backgrounds, adopting a boy named Cameron who now plays for him.

His team calls him "Pop," and he responds with "son" or "m'hijo."

"If you're having a hard day," Bernard said, "he'll come by and sit next to you and just talk."

Go back to that practice when the hitter struggled with his right-left-right footwork. It was late, the team weary, and no one cheered when the kid finally hit a clean spike.

Walker charged back onto the court: "We just got a good hit, so what do we do?"

The players nodded and gathered for a huddle that resembled nothing if not a group hug.

--

To call Salesian an overnight success would be wrong. The Mustangs had long dominated their league of parochial schools and ventured into the playoffs in seasons past.

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