Al Bennett already knew one of them was in.
He sat in the stands at Gregory Gym last December with former Broderick Award winner Sally Schlobohm Tan, a member of the University of Texas national championship team in 1981, about to watch the NCAA regional final in Austin between the Longhorns and Purdue. A jovial feeling just came over him because until that day, Bennett, the varsity volleyball coach at nearby Westlake High School since 1988, had 43 volleyball players compete at the NCAA’s Division I level but not one had played for a team that made it to the Final Four.
Once the Dayton regional final concluded—USC eliminated Stanford—Bennett had the satisfaction of knowing that outside hitter Sara Shaw, a freshman with the Trojans, was his first.
By the day’s end, Bennett had three more—on three different Final Four teams. It had not happened in the NCAA Final Four since 1994, when Berkeley Prep of Tampa, Fla., was represented on the rosters of UCLA (Kelly Flannigan), Stanford (Eileen Murfee) and Penn State (Claudette Otero).
The other two Westlake players were Lauren Dickson, a senior outside hitter for UT after her transfer from Virginia; and Cal sophomore setter Elly Barrett. Recalls Bennett, “That was a pretty exciting Saturday for all of us. We were all exchanging text messages all day, so it was kind of cool.”
Situated southwest of the state capitol, about a 10-minute drive without traffic (rarer these days), Westlake sits on the edge of Texas hill country. From downtown Austin, there are roadside signs along the way indicating that Westlake also sits above the outer portions of the massive Edwards aquifer. Which makes even Jerritt Elliott, head coach for the Longhorns women’s program, wonder: What’s in the water?
When asked about three Westlake players at the Final Four, Elliott responded, “It’s pretty special. It might be in the water. My daughter’s 12 and she’s already six feet tall and we’re in that school district.”
Shrouded in an area where football coverage dominates, the growth of volleyball to its prominence today is the best-kept secret inside the Lone Star state. But outside the borders, guys like USC coach Mick Haley, who left his mark in Texas as the Longhorns head coach for 17 years, including two national championships (’81 and ’88), know better. That’s why California coaches come calling, evident by checking the team rosters. Take Cal for example: In addition to Barrett, Bears coach Rich Feller had three other players from the state of Texas.
Barrett and Shaw were teammates on the 2007 and ’08 Westlake teams that finished runner-up in the state tournament. They also teamed up in ’08 on 17’s Mizuno, the Austin Juniors team coached by former UT assistant coach Glen Lietzke, to win the USA Junior Olympics national title in 17-open.
Dickson and Barrett were teammates on the ’05 Westlake team that finished as the state’s runner-up, one year before Shaw contributed to the varsity squad as a freshman. Dickson, in her junior season with the Westlake Chaparrals, was part of the 2004 state championship team. Like Barrett and Shaw after her, Dickson also played for Lietzke with the Austin Juniors.
“We were just happy to be a part of it,” said Lietzke from the Austin Juniors office, located across the street from the campus of St. Edward’s University. “We see ourselves as facilitating the high school development. The fact that those kids played for us, I mean, they’re great kids from a great high school program.”
With his businesslike approach, Lietzke is constantly on the move and, in Bennett’s opinion, too modest to accept accolades. But Bennett cites the fact that in 1984, the year Austin Juniors was founded, there was only five other reputable club teams in Texas compared to more than 30 today in Austin alone. He credits Lietzke and Haley, whom Bennett considers his mentor, for that growth. Not so much because of the increasing number of players, but more due to the development of coaches—Bennett among them as an elementary school coach in the early 1980s—to teach the game.
“It wasn’t like we were protecting our athletes so that we can always win or protecting all our secrets. Our goal is to make the game as good as we can make it,” said Bennett. “In Texas, with both high school and club coaches, their goal has been to make Texas the best hotbed of volleyball in the United States.”
The Longhorns, with three straight appearances in the Final Four, are one of the primary beneficiaries, and Elliott knows it. He also knows he can’t keep all of them around. That’s how two of the three ended up on rosters of teams other than the Longhorns last December.
2004 Chaps Produce Top Talent
Of the four state championship teams Al Bennett has coached at Westlake High School, he rates his last title team, the 2004 Chaparrals, as the most talented.
Nine players from that team, including three non-starters, went on to earn NCAA Division I scholarships. One of them was Lauren Dickson, the Chaps’ leading outside hitter as a junior. She played for three seasons at the University of Virginia before transferring to Texas for her final season last year.
“I think it was probably our best team ever. We were 43-1,” said Bennett.
The lone loss occurred early in the season to Churchill High School of San Antonio. But dealing with the early-season adversity, Bennett believes, is what made the difference in their season when the Chaps later ran into some rocky moments.
“We had one round where we were struggling. We were down 0-2 in games and came back and won,” said Bennett. “It was really one of the defining moments for the team. After that, they just dominated everyone in the playoffs.”
The Chaps under Bennett have reached the title game in the state tournament eight times, including four times since the ’04 title.
Originally published in June 2011