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For a program that entered the 2023 season on a 25-match losing streak after two winless campaigns following the pandemic-shortened season, Tuesday night, April 11, was all the sweeter for the Dana Hills boys volleyball program.
The Dolphins swept visiting El Toro, 28-26, 25-21, 25-17, to clinch the program’s first CIF-SS playoff berth since 2019 in a Sea View League game at Dana Hills High School.
“It means the world to this entire team, the entire program,” Dana Hills senior captain Jack Andrew said. “As many people know, it’s been a rough couple of years, but it really shows how much a great, fantastic new coach and a lot of hard work and dedication, how it all pays off. So grateful for this opportunity to be back.”
Dana Hills (15-11, 5-2) has won 11 of its past 12 matches after losing eight of its first 10 matches, including extending that two-year-plus losing streak to 28 games. That losing monkey is well off the Dolphins’ backs with a new coach and a new energy that has led Dana Hills back to the postseason.
“I don’t think anyone had told these kids, ‘Hey, you can be pretty good,’ “ first-year Dana Hills coach Spencer Andrews said. “I don’t know what it was like the last couple years, but they just didn’t think they could be good volleyball players. I came in here and watched a couple practices and was like, ‘Dude, you guys are good. Why don’t you go win games?’ “
It was a long road back to the CIF-SS playoffs for the Dana Hills boys volleyball team.
The Dolphins likely would’ve qualified in the 2020 season, but the COVID-19 pandemic shut down and canceled the rest of the season, after Dana Hills had opened the campaign with a 12-4 record. That was the first bit of pain for this Dolphin program.
In 2021, Dana Hills did not win a single set in a winless 0-11 season. The losing streak extended to 25 consecutive games through another winless season in 2022, with just five set victories in the 0-14 season.
That’s when Andrews entered the picture.
Andrews, a Virginia Beach native with professional experience in England, Denmark and Germany, was coaching locally with T-Street girls volleyball and then Orange County Volleyball Club and the El Toro girls volleyball team when he got connected in to be the head coach of the Dana Hills boys volleyball team.
His early conversations with this senior-heavy Dolphins group showed, despite the mounting losses, they had the fight and desire to change this program’s fortunes.
“They were hungry,” Andrews said. “We struggled to get gym time with just the one gym, and so, we did all these classroom meetings. It was all seniors, so I asked, ‘What do you guys want out of this? How can I facilitate this experience?’ They were like, ‘Dude, we want to get after it.’ ”
Andrews said the players wanted to do 6 a.m. practices, plus afternoon practices, lifting sessions and beach volleyball sessions. Andrews also said the players wanted to truly rebuild this program back to the ultra-competitive days of the Oz Simmons Dana Hills teams.
“Almost everything they talked about was next year,” Andrews said. “We want to rebuild the program. We want to get a frosh-soph team. It’s 13 seniors on the varsity team. They could very much be selfish, have a good fun year, leave and be done with it, and that wasn’t it at all. They want to build something here. For 18-year-old kids, that’s pretty impressive.”
While Dana Hills put in its sweat equity and homed in on a renewed focus, the Dolphins still struggled to get results early.
Dana Hills won just one set in its first three matches before finally snapping the losing streak with back-to-back tournament wins on Feb. 24. The Dolphins then lost their next five matches heading into Sea View League play.
Dana Hills opened league with its first of three sweeps of El Toro this season on March 14 and got up to a winning record in league with the second sweep of El Toro on March 23. The league results showed a clear upward trend for Dana Hills, but it was after this point during a trip to the Malibu Tournament that the Dolphins found their stride.
“We’re getting inconsistent results and playing good teams. We go to Malibu, where we finally play Division 4 teams. It was like playing JV,” Andrews said. “The ball moves slower. I think we got so much confidence.”
Dana Hill won the Malibu Tournament with a 7-0 record and an overall nine-match winning streak. Mission Viejo would get the edge on the league title race with a five-set victory on March 28, but Dana Hills rebounded with wins over Capistrano Valley on March 30 and El Toro on Tuesday to finally send the Dolphins back to the postseason.
Dana Hills swept El Toro again on Tuesday, but the Dolphins were pushed. El Toro clawed back to force extra points in the first set, overcame a five-point deficit to tie at 20 and 21 points in the second set, and led, 8-5, in the third set. However, the Dolphins met every challenge to topple the Chargers.
“Every time we got in the huddle, coach was saying, ‘Find your rhythm. Find your rhythm,’ ”Jack Andrew said. “End of the day, volleyball is a game of momentum. Yeah, we did let up a little bit. Coach says we bleed out a little bit sometimes. It’s all about finding our rhythm, and we did that.”
Beyond finding their rhythm, the Dolphins have found the fun in the game. Under Andrews, Dana Hills has played with energy, and the seniors have formed a visible camaraderie. Every point earns a celebration on the court, including every block sending the bench players to the ground like bowling pins.
“It has to be fun. It’s high school volleyball,” Andrews said. “The thing I’m most stoked about is we’ve got four kids here, probably five or six, who are going to play college volleyball. They weren’t even thinking about it before this year. It reignited some passion for the game.”
Dana Hills volleyball has been reinvigorated, and the Dolphins will take that energy into the CIF-SS playoffs.
After playing at Mission Viejo on Thursday, April 13, Dana Hills closes out the regular season on Wednesday, April 19.