By Cathy DeBoer
AVCA Executive Director
The team from Monta Vista turned heads for a number of reasons: one, they were first-timers at the Best of the West, having only recently been judged worthy of an invite to the elite field; two, they were from Northern California, not part of the beach-trained, suntanned regulars in the event; three, they were almost all Asian kids – thin, lithe, undersized; but, mostly, they were WINNING – finishing second in the loaded 32-team field.
Paul Chiu, their head coach now in his ninth season, was also an unfamiliar face among the volley-elites. A University of Michigan Business School graduate who rose to managing parmer at Accenture before retiring in 2009, he had more experience coaching basketball than volleyball when he took over the Monta Vista team in 2010. His son was a freshman and, even though Chiu had acquired the nickname “red-eye” (for his 10 years of weekly overnight flights to be home with his family), the chance to coach him was too important to let a lack of experience with volleyball get in the way.
“I read every volleyball book I could find,” said Chiu in an interview, “and bought lots of video tapes … I’d also take my teams to camps and study everything the court coaches did with them – listening to feedback and writing down drills … ”
Chiu admits learning to coach at Monta Vista was a process: “I started ‘old-school,’ demanding that the boys attend every practice and match. I realized pretty quickly that, at this school, I wouldn’t have enough boys to field a team if I stuck to these rigid rules. Monta Vista is one of the top public high schools in the country and sits right in the middle of Cupertino, CA, the home of Apple. Eighty percent of the students are Asian, many with parents who are first-generation immigrants from China, Japan, Korea and India. Education comes first; sports participation is not valued for its own sake, but only as it contributes to their child’s success in school and in getting into elite colleges.”
First Chiu had to get the parents on board: “I talked to them about the life lessons their sons would learn from volleyball – effort, commitment, teamwork, leadership. And I pointed out that applicants at elite colleges need at least two extracurricular activities, so they look balanced to the admissions board.”
Next Chiu applied his business problem-solving skills to analyzing where a highly disciplined, yet undersized team, could gain an edge in volleyball. “Most high school boys’ teams do not receive serve very well,” said Chiu. “We focus most of our practice time on serving, ball control and defense … By serving tactically and aggressively we can get a predictable attack from the other team … Even big hitters get frustrated when they are always against a double block with good diggers on all the angles.”
Third, Chiu began the work of building a winning sports culture in a school where athletic success was an anomaly. “I want them to have fun and I believe in positive coaching, but this is not a democracy. I don’t allow goofing around or lack of effort. The gym is my classroom, and I want the same respect as they give their other teachers.”
His first two teams were mediocre, with Monta Vista finishing in the middle of the conference. He started a junior varsity team and middle school feeder programs. By 2012, Moma Vista was finishing in the top three, and from 2015 to 2017, they won the league, dropping only two conference matches in three seasons.
Chiu’s son, Derrick, graduated in 2013 and became the first Monta Vista volleyball player to compete in college, finishing his New York University career as the starting setter for the 2017 team which qualified for the NCAA Championship. While the first to play in college, Derrick now has company: Ryan Manley plays for UC Santa Cruz, Alex Li followed Derrick to NYU, and Jason Shen will be the first DI Monta Vista product when he enrolls at Harvard in the fall of 2018.
Is the Monta Vista miracle repeatable in other high schools, in other parts of the country, in other demographic settings? Can it happen without a “Paul Chiu”? Certainly not many coaches can work for almost nothing, like Chiu does, and those with full-time jobs have more time constraints. A lack of qualified youth coaches, while not a problem unique to volleyball, is definitely an impediment to growth.
Despite these obstacles, Chiu says, schools in California, his area included, are adding boys’ teams at a significant rate; since he started in 2010, the number of boys playing volleyball in California has increased from 15,638 to 19,676, and 173 schools have added teams.
The advent of mega-schools, meaning a lot of middle school boys are looking for new sports options when they get to high school, helps boys’ volleyball; a spring season where most training and competition takes place after basketball is over, helps boys volleyball; the retreat from contact sports associated with head trauma, helps boys volleyball; and, the growing demand for male college players created by the addition of new varsity teams, helps boys volleyball.
Are there more Paul Chius out there – a parent whose love for his kids prompted him to figure out how to coach volleyball? a teacher whose love of learning prompted him to sell volleyball to skeptical parents? A coach whose love of volleyball prompted him to continue coaching after his kids were gone?
Yes! They are out there! We must find them!