M. Terry / El Sol

At Last! The Poly High girls’ volleyball team team enjoys its first City championship since 1997.

Poly girls’ volleyball Coach Eddie Alcantar spent most of the City Section Division II championship match relentlessly pacing the sidelines of the Roybal Learning Center in Los Angeles on Saturday afternoon, Nov. 12, silently urging on the Poly High Parrots in their duel with Los Angeles Wilson High. Alcantar was desperate not to send any negative energy at his team.

“I was trying to stay calm,” he said afterward. “[Assistant coach Viridiana Gallardo] asked me before the match if I was nervous and I was. But I didn’t want [the team] to know how nervous I was. If a coach is nervous there’s bad tension. So I just tried to keep my calm.”

Alcantar should not have worried. After what Parrots — who won their first City championship in 20 years by defeating the Mules in four sets, 18-25, 25-16, 25-19, 25-20 — had been through in the 2016 season, nerves would have been pretty far down on the panic scale.

If Poly had been a reality show, you could have called it “Against All Odds.” For most of the summer the team couldn’t practice indoors because the school gymnasium was undergoing renovation so workouts and practices were done outdoors, although some players did work with former Poly coach Gaby Gallardo on her travel team. 

And Alcantar was the fourth head coach for the Parrots in the last four years. But his background was baseball; he’d  spent six years as the head coach at Grant and was also an assistant at San Fernando before getting a full-time position teaching PE at Poly three years ago. He was “helping out” the volleyball program when he was asked to take the head coaching job shortly before the fall semester started.

The circumstances threatened to overwhelm the team before the season even started.

“Honestly, from the beginning we all kind of doubted ourselves,” said Maddie Ronquillo, a senior who plays setter and outside hitter. “Before we relied on our coach. This year we relied on ourselves.”  

Somehow the Parrots were 19-6-2 overall, finished second in the East Valley League and were the second seed in the Division II playoffs. And even if, according to one player,  Alcantar “didn’t know a lick about volleyball,” he did know something about coaching and motivating players.,

“I think coaching in general is similar in the principals,” he said. “You have to put the players in positions to be successful. And sometimes you have to maneuver the pieces around to make sure the puzzle fits.”

By not trying to “fake it” with the team, Alcantar struck a chord with his players.

“He always encourages us on the court,” middle hitter Mary Baltazar, a senior, said of Alcantar. “He always wants us to try our best. And the support he gives us … instead of bringing us down, he inspires us to try our best.”

And when the playoffs started, Alcantar brought in junior varsity coaches Elton Feri and Viridiana Gallardo — Gaby’s younger sister, who played two varsity seasons of volleyball at Poly — to handle the “X’s” and “O’s” and game strategy during the playoffs while he continued passing out the good vibes.

The system worked, as the Parrots mowed through Los Angeles schools Orthopaedic, Garfield and Contreras to reach the final. But Wilson (21-12), the top seed, hadn’t lost a set in eliminating Los Angeles schools West Adams Prep and Jordan, and Sherman Oaks CES. Plus the Mules had a dominant player in middle blocker Cheyenne McElrath, who is both long and agile.

When Wilson claimed the first set — spurred in part by three consecutive serving aces by McElrath midway through — it appeared Poly’s improbable season was headed for a heartbreaking ending.

But the Parrots rallied themselves and their cause. Even if they didn’t have a single sledgehammer like McElrath (who finished with 11 kills, five blocks and seven aces) they had a collection of pneumatic drills to continually punch holes in the Mules’ defense and psyche.

Baltazar would record 13 kills and four blocks. Tatiana Rocha added 10 kills and two aces. There were also critical contributions by Ronquillo,  Mariah Mallari, Desiree Molina and Valee Xaymountry, who almost single-handedly chased down and dug out every key Wilson blast.

Poly would seep the next three games, with Mallari slamming home match point in the fourth set.

“I knew my girls were good. But this is amazing,” Baltazar said. “It’s been a long road; I’ve been at it since the ninth grade…I’m so proud of our team.”

Ronquillo struggled to process what happened even while hugging the championship trophy.

“I’m so excited; I’m at a loss for words,” she said. “I’m gonna keep this [memory] with me forever.”

Viridiana Gallardo watched the mob scene of celebrating players and beamed.

“What got them here was teamwork,” she said. “When it came down to it, they played as a team. And that’s what won it.”

As for Alcantar, he could finally allow himself a smile.

“They were real resilient the whole year,” Alcantar said of the players. “Whenever they faced adversity they were always resilient and always stepped up every time. Today was no different.”

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