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BRIAN WHITEHEAD, STAFF
Westminster High's boys volleyball team seeks the school's first league championship. Standing, from left, are Coach Kenny Ma, Minh Nguyen, Hien Do, Triet Le, Fetu Naiuli, Mathew Dinh, Nicholas Nguyen and Benton Huynh. Kneeling are Jimmy Vu, Victor Nguyen, Tony Nguyen, Ramsey Thatcher and Dat Tran.

Ma enjoys new role as Westminster's coach

STAFF WRITER

WESTMINSTER - Some kids still call him Kenny, before they correct themselves in the next breath. Old habits die hard.

Westminster’s first-year boys volleyball coach Kenny Ma is impossible to pick out of a pack of students. An alum, he graduated from Westminster last spring.

Now an 18-year-old freshman at Golden West College, Ma is Orange County’s youngest varsity coach, and his maiden assignment could very well capture the program’s first league championship.

“I keep telling my kids that we can make history, that’s the goal,” Ma said. “We can’t settle for a second. Once we win our first (league championship) then next year we build up to that. It becomes tradition.

“Hopefully I’ll be here many years from now, and hopefully we’ll hang many more league and CIF banners.”

***     ***     ***

Ma just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

After graduating last spring, he returned to Westminster High in the fall to coach the school’s frosh/soph girls volleyball team. He coached varsity when Kirk Arradaza, the girls coach, missed a weekday match. Westminster’s athletic director and its assistant principal caught the match, and they liked how Ma, despite his age, commanded respect.

Arradaza, the boys varsity coach in 2014, and his junior varsity coach both retired in the fall, leaving Ma, who accepted the boys varsity gig.

“I would basically be coaching my teammates,” said Ma, who lettered twice at Westminster, including last season, when the Lions finished second to Santa Ana High in the Golden West League. “When I came back, they knew me as a coach. But not as a head coach. I feared it would be hard for me, too. I understood their point. But after our first team meeting, it all fell into place.”

Returning letter winner Mathew Dinh, an outside hitter and a former teammate of Ma’s, said at first he and many others had questions.

Can an 18-year-old even coach varsity?

Ma, a longtime volleyball enthusiast, came in with a plan.

He first wanted to pass along his love for the sport. Cut in his freshman year, Ma fought his way onto the junior varsity team the next season. He wants his players to share that same persistence, that same fire.

Ma was the only senior on last year’s 15-win outfit. As a coach, he inherited the nucleus of Westminster’s best team in years.

“Last year our goal was to get a (league championship) banner,” said senior libero Jimmy Ha, who, like Ma, was cut as an underclassman. “We have the same goal this year. We were surprised to see him back this year, but he was just himself. I look up to him, so that was extra motivation for me.

“We’re more of a family now. We all know what we’re doing.”

***     ***     ***

The two volleyball banners hanging in Westminster’s gym are 30 years old.

During a three-year stretch in the mid-1980s, the school’s girls program captured the pair of Sunset League championships. Since then, neither the boys program nor the girls program have anything to show for their efforts.

Senior Minh Nguyen, a returning outside hitter, said he’ll be shocked if that doesn’t change this spring.

“I don’t want to get big-headed, and I want to make sure our team stays humble, because we haven’t done anything yet,” he said, “but I really want that banner. And the entire team really wants that banner as well. When you have a team working for the same goal as hard as we are, it makes winning the thing a lot easier.”

Ma doesn’t have a single club player at his disposal, and most of his kids spend August through November on the football field.

But volleyball is about continuity, and in this year’s team, Ma has a group of returning letter winners willing to hustle, fight and sacrifice. They know when and where to expend their energy, Ma said, and their experience in tight matches proves invaluable.

Ma is Westminster’s third coach in as many years, but he said he feels he has taken his predecessors’ best qualities and fused them. Westminster’s offense and defense this season is the product of previous teams’ strengths and weaknesses, Ma said.

Camaraderie is the elixir.

“Some of us have been playing since our freshman, sophomore year,” Dinh said. “We’ve grown up together. We seem like an actual team. Even with the new people, the guys in their first year, we’ve come together as a family.”

***     ***     ***

Christopher Vu wants his players to continue talking about winning the school’s first league championship.

Vu, Ma’s longtime friend and assistant coach, is a La Quinta High alum, a former four-year letter winner and two-time Garden Grove League champion.

Vu said it’s important for a young team to keep its “eyes on the prize” amid a run this promising. Vu believes he and Ma can get Westminster over the hump, no matter the team’s limitations.

“We’re short, but we focus on defense,” he said. “We have athletic ability, we have weapons. We don’t have a bad rotation. We have high fliers who can put the ball down. We’re good at serve/receive.”

Ma points to his team’s five-set win over Santa Ana earlier this month as the moment everyone began believing.

In March, Westminster lost to Santa Ana in the championship match of the Santiago Tournament. Ma said the three-set loss “woke us up,” adding “we knew it wouldn’t be easy beating them when league rolled around, when the matches started counting.”

Westminster won its next seven matches before hosting Santa Ana on April 1 – the teams’ first Golden West League tilt.

After splitting the first four sets, Westminster won the fifth, 15-11. It was the program’s first win over Santa Ana since 2012.

The Lions haven’t lost since.

“Every team is on our hit list,” Ma said, “and we’re preparing for each team as though they’re the team in the way of our banner. I’m sure we’re on everyone’s hit list, too. But we’re not taking anybody lightly.”

Contact the writer: 714-704-3790 or bwhitehead@ocregister.com


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