The Vikings’ front line along the net, which featured Vargas, a measly 6-foot-7-inches tall, along with sophomore Nathaniel Gates at 6-foot-8-inches and Chase Blackwell, another 6-foot-7-inches giant, looked like they were from outer space to some of La Jolla’s opponents this year.
La Jolla’s hits were coming from so high and so fast, they could have been meteor shots from the Outer Limits.
Reflecting the seemingly otherworldly nature of the CIF champs’ attack, George Clinton sings in Parliament’s song “Mothership Connection,” “Put a glide in your stride and a dip in your hip/And come on up to the Mothership/Hustle on over here.”
Coach Dave Jones’ unit got into a Clinton-worthy groove early on, and stayed there throughout the three-month season. It’s difficult to have a target on your back as everyone’s number-one enemy, but La Jolla accepted it, and flourished.
With Vargas’ thunderous hits, coming after an offseason in which he diligently worked on gaining upper body strength, “He has the ability to get in the head of opponents,” says Jones. “It’s kind of intimidating to have a player who can hit the ball that hard.”
Vargas, a bass guitarist and drummer who is enjoying Parliament’s beats lately, definitely wasn’t a one-man show in the Vikings’ march to the championship, ranked in some polls number one from the start. Berkeley Miesfeld, one of La Jolla’s two stellar setters, was a heavy consideration for CIF Player of the Year, which ultimately went to the surprising Daniel McColl, a 6-foot-2-inch tall, three-sport athlete who was the only Viking not playing club volleyball.
Completing the starting rotation for Jones’ squad, besides Gates and Blackwell, were Luke Lentin, the Vikings’ other setter, a fiery competitor, and Grant Starsiak, who switched to libero from his accustomed outside hitting position.
“I forget how I said it, but I pulled Grant over at the beginning of the season and asked him, ‘How would you like to play out of position?’” recalls Jones of what could have been an awkward exchange. “We had a lot of height. Our real need was libero. Grant plays outside hitter on his club team.
“He embraced it, and there was never any looking back. By the end of the season, he was one of the best liberos in the county. He perfected it. To do that during a (short) high school season is really impressive. He did it for the good of the team.”
Gates, who grew in height during his sophomore school year and who appears to continue to grow, blossomed at his position at middle hitter-blocker. He says it was a “big deal” for the volleyball team to win the school’s first Open Division title of any kind after so much “hard work.” “We had a long season. To top it off with an open championship was nice.” That for him is a lot of words, a stark contrast to his teammate who lines up to his right, Vargas, a year older at 17.
Gabe, who from his outside hitter position on the right end of the net drills the ball with his left hand across the court, definitely keeps up the chatter with teammates: “We’re doing a drill. I’m talking to people behind me. In volleyball, I think a lot of it is constantly checking up to make sure each of us is on the same page. We don’t want anyone losing concentration on a play.”
Of Lentin, another of the juniors who have developed together—Blackwell and McColl were the only senior starters, graduating last month—Vargas says, “He’s always giving feedback. He’s also the most interactive with the home crowd. He will look over and get them pumped up. If you play Eastlake or Otay Ranch, they’re loud crowds. It really helps to have a loud crowd.”
The only blip during the season was a loss to Parker in La Jolla’s own Big Gym when Blackwell was sidelined with a medical issue. The rest was stellar play from outstanding athletes, and a lot of luck along the way.
“In the playoffs, which were double-elimination this year for the first time, we struggled with Eastlake,” says Jones. “With La Costa Canyon in the final, we had match point in the third set, lost two sets, then won 15-13 on a crazy play when the winning point went up into the basketball hoop in the Montgomery High gym (where the championship was played) and came down.”
McColl, an All-CIF performer as a bruising two-way player for the Vikings’ football team last fall, slimmed from 255 pounds down to a svelte and lithe volleyball frame.
“We didn’t expect Daniel to play the way he did,” understates Jones. The student athlete was a bench-sitter beginning his junior season a year ago. “We couldn’t have set to our middles without him” to draw away attention next to them on the front line, says his coach.
Vargas, a commit to play at Cal State Long Beach after graduation in 2018, says there was a point early in the spring when it became apparent the team might be really special.
“After the ‘Best of the West’ tournament in Poway” (which La Jolla won), the future music major recounts, “we had a team meeting. I said, ‘It looks like we’re going to be one of the better teams. Other teams are going to be playing their best volleyball against us. We’re going to have to give them our best volleyball.’”
Continues the smasher, “We weren’t able to do that perfectly. But we were able to do a good job.”
Gates and his teammate both identify assistant coach Bowie Haug, a Coast Volleyball club coach, as a key to the technical aspects of the game. While Jones attends to “umbrella” issues overseeing the program, as well as the Vikings’ beach team—he helps direct the growing conference structure that hopes to be sanctioned as an official CIF sport in coming years—Haug commands huddles during timeouts, getting specific on strategy and technique.
The 6-foot-8-inch tall Nathaniel, who with McColl was named First Team All-CIF, shares part of his defensive method: “At middle blocker, you’re usually looking at the (opposing) setter’s hands. Then you go out and block where he’s setting.” The setter could send a back seat to a hitter behind him, or set to a hitter he is facing.
Asked what he enjoys about the sport, Gates says, “You have to be a team. All the parts have to come together. And also, just the feeling when you get a nice kill or a block. It’s a good feeling.”
Blackwell was named All-CIF Second Team. In the Western League, McColl, Gates, and Miesfield were honored on the First Team All-League, while Lentin and Blackwell were named to the second team.
Jones points out more than once that this squad is the first to win the Beach Cities Invitational a second time. The BCI is a prestigious tournament that La Jolla High plays host to and Jones administers.
The Vikings also broke their own record for highest grade-point average by a team, 4.36, bettering last year’s 4.19. “Four kids had 5.0. They took all AP and college courses,” the coach gushes. For that, they won the American Volleyball Coaches Association national award.
Looking ahead to next year, there’s more of the same to come. “We’re going to return five starters,” says Jones. “When we went to CIF, we talked about the fact more of us are going to have to play club for us to win it (the Open Division title) again.”
“To be able to do what we’ve done is impressive to me,” the coach says. “It’s a credit to what the guys are doing in the offseason. More are playing beach volleyball in the fall, so the more touches, the better.”