Longtime Balboa Bay boys club coach Rick Polk talks about traits that made his previous squads stand out and the intangibles that led them to national-stage success.
With his 2019 16 Blue team that recently won the USA Volleyball Junior National Championships 16 Open title, one major thing illuminated brightly in neon lights.
“The key thing about this group is it really played together as a team,” he said. “There were times we played against better outside hitters, better middles and just better players. These guys were committed to playing hard together. We worked really hard on consistency and limiting errors. We kept track and the guys were cognizant of that. We outlasted teams when we were up against it mentally and physically. We beat the team from San Juan in the semifinals (at nationals) and they had three guys who were bigger than anyone we had. We kept our composure and played through every point and we were able to get through.”
Balboa Bay capped off the 2018-2019 season by going a perfect 11-0 in Dallas at USA Volleyball nationals, winning 22 of 23 sets. The team’s year-long efforts also earned it the honor of being the 2019 VolleyballMag.com boys club team of the year.
Balboa Bay placed four players on the 16 Open all-tournament team in Dallas, including tournament MVP Gabe Dyer, Grant Oh, Riley Oh and Dane Hillis.
Polk noted this group finished fifth both years at 14s and 15s, and added there was a healthy amount of players on the team that hadn’t even won a weekend tournament before this season.
“We saw a huge improvement,” he said. “They had the confidence. It’s one thing to win and it’s another thing to learn how to win. Early on, some of our guys didn’t have that experience of playing in big matches under the bright lights. Rockstar was a team we battled this year. They got us pretty good a couple times and then the first time we were able to beat them, it was a big confidence builder.”
And then the tournament titles starting piling up.
“We ended up winning four or five tournaments this year,” Polk said. “For some of these guys it was a first. They had been on the doorstep before but we not able to get over the hump. But because of their hard work, blood, sweat and tears, they did. They were all willing to commit to working super-hard and the improvement showed, especially in the last two months. That’s a credit to the players on this team. They committed to each other. Everybody was at practice every night. This was super-fun to be part of.”
Grant Oh noted accountability throughout the team was present at every turn.
“We were successful because of our team’s mental toughness,” he said. “Every practice, each person came with the mentality that we were going to get better. If you weren’t going hard enough, a teammate would come up to you and get you going. Intense training and conditioning meant at day four of nationals, we were still able to play our best volleyball.
“Our coaches pushed us not only to be strong athletes, but to show strong character. This mentality meant that when we were under the highest stress we were able to trust that our teammates would be there for each other.”
When Hillis came to Balboa Bay he was searching for two specific elements.
“I was looking for more dedication and intensity,” he said. “In practices and workouts here, I got that above and beyond. We were in three-hour practices three and four days a week. Everything led up to nationals. We were ready for nationals.”
Dyer, in his first year playing for the club, pointed out team chemistry was through the roof. “I was new to everyone,” he said. “All the guys welcomed me in and we instantly had this rad team chemistry. It felt like I had been on the team for several years.”
Dyer added off-the-court bonding included “Squading up as a team on Fortnite instead of doing homework, or maybe just little clash royale battles between matches. It all added up and our team bond kept us together.”
Grant Oh added: “We shared a common goal that we wanted to make each other just a little bit better every day. Right away, I learned we were more than a team. We were a family. No one played for themselves, but for those who were standing around him. That’s the Balboa way.”
Hillis said he loved how badly his teammates wanted to win.
“I was in the gym with people who worked as hard as I do. I was in there with nine to 11 guys each night who showed up and were ready to throw it down and put it all on the line, even if it was just a practice game,” he said. “I appreciated working with these guys and I appreciated Polk pushing all of us to be better. We worked hard for each other.”
Polk said on the court Balboa Bay used balance throughout the lineup to continue to push forward.
“We were not the most powerful team out there, but we had good ball control and passing with our two left sides, and we played two liberos for the first time. We had an offensive libero and a defensive libero, and we were able to extend a lot of plays because of our defense. We were able to get the ball back over the net and win those long rallies and battles. We found ways to finish plays this season, whether we were tooling the block or tipping, or digging a big ball.
“It wasn’t the most special brand of volleyball and we weren’t the most athletic, but we grinded it out, and that was what was really rewarding. If you looked around, there probably weren’t a lot of people who thought we had a chance to win it.”
Dyer emphatically agreed with his coach’s assessment.
“Our team was mainly so good this season not because of the height and talent—because we really weren’t that big — but because of how much freaking time we spent together just working to get better as teammates and as athletes each practice,” he said.
Dyer said Balboa Bay had a unique determination about it.
“We took care of our bodies from putting our legs up between matches and eating the right amount of food to stay fueled for our next opponents. It didn’t come down to who was better at nationals. It came down to who took care of these things, and who had the right mindset. We had a vision and we made it happen.”
Balboa Bay’s Alex Ijams added: “We played some really talented teams at junior nationals. We learned from each match and become stronger with each challenge we faced as a team. We fought hard for every point and never gave up.”
Polk noted Balboa Bay had a 1.59 point percentage mark (points for divided by points against in the tournament). Polk said research he had from available junior nationals tournaments dating back some 12-13 years show only two other teams during that timespan had a larger differential (1.60 and 1.61).
“That shows how consistent we were this year,” he said. “Being at 0-0 and getting that first point is just as important as getting the point when it’s 15-15 in the third. Our big thing was limiting those big runs of two, three and four points in a row. That’s a pretty cool stat.
“We were committed to playing defense. I’ve been around a lot of volleyball teams and if you don’t want to play defense, it’s tough to do things. These guys made a conscious decision to play defense.”
Polk, who coaches the boys and girls teams at Tesoro High School in Rancho Santa Margarita, California in south Orange County, has coached the 16s age group at Balboa Bay for 25 years. This was his third national title in a row at 16s. He said he’s lost track of the number of national titles he’s won, but pegs it in the 8-10 range.
“Coach Polk dramatically improved our individual skills so we could each do our job effectively on the court,” Ijams said. “He inspired us as a team to give 100 percent every time we were on the court. Our team was extremely driven, dedicated and determined.”
Balboa Bay sent 12 teams to Dallas and seven came home with medals, including four national titles.
“It was a great year for our club overall,” he said.