When recalling the image of a 14-year-old Victoria Dennis — 6-foot-2, 120 pounds, braces, with a middle part – both Dennis and her former coach at Bonita High School, Adriana Contreras, called to mind the same word: Bambi.
“She was,” Contreras said. “The minute I saw her. She hadn’t grown into her body and she was so, so tall. When I saw her I was like ‘Oh, my gosh, she looks like a great athlete.’”
And then Dennis, a freshman in just her second year of volleyball, stepped on the court, “and I was like ‘Oh my gosh I think I’m just going to take her on varsity just to make sure she gets the proper foundation,’” Contreras recalled, laughing. “‘There’s no way she’s going to be able to play.’”
Dennis, of course, had no idea that this was the coach’s evaluation of her. When, following tryouts, she went to check the lists delineating who made what team, and didn’t see her name on the freshman team, and didn’t see her name on the junior varsity team, and finally saw ‘Victoria Dennis’ on the varsity list, she was overjoyed.
“Dad! Oh, my gosh!” she remembered telling her father. “What the heck?”
A note about Dennis: In certain aspects of her life where she regularly excels, like athletics and public speaking, there is no dearth of confidence. To be sure, this confidence is, or would prove to be, warranted. In time, she’d become the best player to walk through Bonita’s gym, the first to play professionally overseas, the only volleyball player at Bonita to have her number retired, as it was last week. But sometimes, as it can go with the best of athletes, that confidence can precede the results.
“She was so happy go lucky you would think she was a starter because of her attitude,” Contreras said. “It’s just how she carries herself.”
Dennis was so convinced she had top-notch ball control that she argued with Contreras that she could play libero.
“Every time,” Contreras said, laughing, “it was a shank. But she’d say ‘I can do it coach!’ She just believed in herself all the time. She didn’t care what people said to her. She just felt like she could do it.”
She felt like that because she eventually would do everything she claimed she could do, whether or not it was in her scope of capabilities at the time. Everything she said she could do, eventually she would, and quickly. Contreras had no plans of letting Dennis see the court much in that freshman year, and yet, by the end of it, Dennis was regularly in the rotation. Contreras said that Dennis scared her in the back row, and yet, soon enough, Dennis was playing outside hitter, where she’d be in serve receive. Heck, she’d even dig a few balls before her Bonita career was finished.
When Bonita needed a kill, or a block, or anything to get the girls going, it was always, always, always Dennis who delivered.
“The gym would just be chanting ‘V! V! V!’” Contreras said.
“After every high school season, I saw a drastic improvement in my play,” Dennis said. “That’s because I was playing up. I would see the upper classmen and say ‘I want to be hitting like that by the end of season.’ I would set a goal for myself every season, seeing the seniors, seeing the juniors, and then basically achieve that before the next club season. That happened every year.”
The result was four consecutive undefeated seasons in league play, a feat virtually unheard of in the Hacienda League. The result was Dennis, once an easy comparison to Bambi, becoming First Team All-League three years in a row, being named MVP as a senior after a career of 663 kills, 217 blocks, and – get this – even 40 digs.
“She had so much enthusiasm,” Contreras said. “She was a sponge, wanting to learn everything she possibly could. And every time she got on the court, it was just happiness. When I saw her as a freshman I can say I genuinely thought she had so much potential and it’s so neat to see it play out.”
Dennis’ indoor career, after finishing her senior season at UCI second on the team in kills (277) and playing two seasons with Circolo Sportivo Italiano in Peru, is officially played out. Her No. 14 Bonita High School jersey is now retired, which is still a surreal concept for her to grasp.
“I honestly don’t think it’s a thing in my head. Is that happening? Is that real? I’m just really lucky. It has come full circle,” she said. “I guess that puts a stamp on it.”
And so a new chapter begins, one on the beach, in which Dennis is, as always, proving to be a fast learner. Already, she’s competed internationally, representing the United States at a NORCECA in Martinique last October, where she finished fifth with Melissa Fuchs-Powell. On the AVP, where she played seven stops this season, she is on the cusp of breaking through the qualifier and into the main draw.
“It’s really weird to process it because I think we get really caught up trying to move forward and achieve goals in the future that you sometimes forget to reflect on the past and how far you have come in that short amount of time,” she said. “Right now, at this stage in my life, I expect to excel at a very fast rate, but if you look back that was never the case.
“High school was four years, college was four or five years, I was in Peru for two seasons, one for four months and one for six months. It’s just really neat to see where I started and where I’ve gone and this is absolutely not the end. If anything, it’s a new beginning.”