Whoever first uttered the phrase “easy on the eyes” might have been talking about Pepperdine University, that school nestled on just the right portion of the Malibu hills overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
Heck, you don’t even have to climb on a boat to go whale-watching. Just step outside into the sea breeze and experience life as it passes before you.
Not a bad place to study to prepare for life. Not a bad place to play volleyball, either.
The tradition of Pepperdine, with legendary coaches Marv Dunphy and Nina Matthies, is cemented. Then you strike gold with players at the same time and same place who not only care about winning, but continuing tradition and leaving a legacy.
There’s a reason why they chose “All of Us” as their mantra for this season.
Scott Wong has seen his share of battles. The Hawaii native played at Pepperdine, learned to coach under Dave Shoji at Hawaii and Dunphy and is now in his seventh season coaching the No. 24 Waves. The 13-2 record to start the season has the promise of more than just a good view of the beach.
They can make a lot of waves, so to speak, the next three days. And its going to be a tough three days in the West Coast Conference. Pepperdine is 5-1 in the WCC, a game off the lead, and plays host Thursday night to No. 22 San Diego (12-3, 6-0) and then No. 8 BYU (16-1, 6-0) on Saturday afternoon. These are matches with a lot at stake, obviously, in the WCC, but also when it comes to NCAA at-large consideration and seeding.
Pepperdine got upset last week in the WCC by Pacific, a tough five-set loss that broke a six-match winning streak. But the Waves bounced back to sweep Saint Mary’s.
Senior outside hitter Rachel Ahrens, at 6-foot-4, commands the most attention. She leads the WCC in kills (4.73) and aces (.60) per set. Junior setter Isabel Zelaya, a 6-foot convert from the outside and captain of the team, runs the show and leads the WCC in assists per set (10.60). Sophomore middle blocker Meg Brown was the WCC Freshman of the Year in 2020 and joined Ahrens and Zelaya on the all-conference team. Senior libero Madison Shields is fourth in the conference in digs per set (3.67).
But wait, there’s more. Of course they want to win, yet they are all savvy enough to see the big picture.
“One common thing is you can trust all three of them with anything. And yes, they also work hard and do the right things,” Wong said. “They’re great teammates but I think trust is a big thing. I trust them to do their jobs, I trust them off the court and all that stuff. Not to get cliché and cheesy but those three, you can trust them.
“In terms of personality, you look at three different players. Rachel is not always happy, but she’s on the lighter side of things and she’s consistent with it. If you need a big play, she’s going to make it.
“Meg is a gifted player and same thing. She’s all kind of firepower, she’s all kinds of blocking, she can serve, she can play the whole game and she’s going to make those plays too.
“Isa is a setter who has kind of led the charge for us the last couple of years. She’s been consistently good not only locating and delivering the set but also making big plays and it’s harder as a setter to make big plays. She’ll dig a ball, she’ll dump a ball at the right time, she’ll block a ball. She’s a playmaker. It’s hard to teach that.”
“The style of how we coach here is not a lot of micro-managing or hand-holding. It’s a lot of empowerment, trust and collaboration,” Wong said. “We have 17 young ladies who are pretty special. These three, I’d be lucky if my daughter turned out to be like they are. Not even volleyball, just three young ladies who get life, get how to love their teammates, how to relate well and also love competing.
“I’m a lucky coach to coach this group. They have hearts of gold and they want to do the right things and be the right people and be a great teammate too.”
Ahrens, from Trabuco Canyon High School in south Orange County, is the big hitter a team relies on. It’s one thing to be the power that moves the team, but she’s been a little shy in expressing her desire to win. Until this year.
“I’m not a very vocal person, I’m very quiet and just chill and so a goal for me was to be a more vocal leader,” said Ahrens, who has 284 kills, 102 more than her next closest teammate, freshman Grace Chillingworth. “That’s a fun fact. I’m not a very wild person on, the court, I’m very laid back. For me, being that vocal leader and holding people accountable, holding myself accountable on the court.”
“When they see me get hyped, they get hyped because it’s not normal,” she says with a laugh.
There is a common strain among the three. They want to win, yes, yet there is a lot more. They strive to be a family.
It’s common to have the players over to Wong’s house to be a part of the family with his wife and two children. Zelaya even had a project due for her education major, and whose kids did she choose?
“It’s such a breath of fresh air to have a coach is also someone that you can look up to as a role model in life,” said Zelaya, a 6-foot native of Houston. “He cares so much about the culture of our team. He cares about the people over the players and that’s a huge deal and just setting the tone for the whole team.”
As idyllic as a location can be, the players still have to hit the gym, the weight room and the books.
Through all the toil and sweat and, those lofty goals beckon. The Waves of 2021 are a team, in every sense of the word, to be reckoned with. Wong has struck it rich.
“Something that’s special about Scott is he’s so willing to learn and grow as a coach,” said Brown, a star at Mater Dei High (more Orange County). “He’s not stuck in this one specific way of coaching and teaching. We have a very open communication system where if we have opinions about how something should work, we have so much trust in each other that we can go to each other and talk about it.”
Now the Waves can make a dent in the WCC this weekend. They’re going to bring their full arsenal.
“Another awesome aspect of our team is that I am the captain but this team is so good about everyone’s role is specific and everyone knows their role really well and we have so many good leaders that may not be captain,” Zelaya said. “But like Rachel has been here, knows the drill and has been great for our team on and off the court. We know we’re not going to step on anyone’s toes and we can all kind of lead together.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re a freshman or a senior, you have a huge role on this team. That respect of knowing everyone has a role to play and we’re not fighting for power of this team, whatsoever.”
Whatsoever just might make a run in 2021. It’ll also make a run for a lifetime.
“He wants to see us thrive as people after college because volleyball is such a small part of our lives,” Brown said. “He does everything he can to make us the best people possible which in turn makes us even better volleyball players.”