The Bigger Purpose of Pepperdine Beach Volleyball
It was the joke to which the coaches always knew the answer yet still had to ask. The signs were everywhere. In the bloodshot eyes of the girls. In the inexorable yawns throughout practice. In those big Xs on their hands.
But this was fall. Exhibition season. Just eight hours of practices a week. The night before, the girls had been at Borderline, a country bar in Thousand Oaks, again. The coaches knew it. The girls knew the coaches knew it. For two years, it had been their thing: Wednesday night line dancing.
So Nina Matthies and Marcio Sicoli and the Pepperdine beach volleyball coaching staff would let it slide, even if it never made for the most productive of Thursday morning practices.
And anyway, how could they really, honestly get mad? The girls weren’t getting into the type of trouble college students tend to feel hopelessly pulled to. They were line dancing.
So they’d let them go, early Thursday morning practice aside.
But on the morning of November 8, Nina Matthies didn’t know. She didn’t know that, as it can sometimes go with college students, the Borderline group had dissolved. Matthies had retired the previous spring, after six years of coaching beach and 31 indoor. She didn’t know that Skylar Caputo and the rest of the Waves, after two years of going to Borderline on Wednesday nights, had begun doing different things.
All she knew was what she heard on the news: that a 28-year-old former Marine had entered Borderline the night of November 7, a Wednesday, and opened fire. All she knew was that 13 were killed and a dozen or so others were injured.
All she knew was that, for the past two years, her girls had been there on Wednesday nights, and November 7 was a Wednesday night.
Horrific was how she described the feeling, the stomach-dropping one where the brain blitzes through every combination of of what could have happened. When she finally got out of Decker Canyon and had enough service to send out messages, she texted Caputo and Sicoli and assistant coach Delaney Knudsen.
Everybody was ok. None of the girls had gone, though fate, it seemed, had a funny way of intervening. Caputo’s 8 a.m. class that Thursday morning had been canceled.
“If somebody had asked me to go,” she said, “I’d have gone.”
A fraternity on campus had planned on having a date night there but wound up canceling. In two weeks, Caputo was planning on celebrating her 22nd birthday there, as she had done with her 21st. She’d chosen Borderline because you only needed to be 18 to enter. The whole team could come; the younger players would just leave with those Xs the coaches loved to rib them about.
“What if he had chosen two weeks to go and we were all there?” Caputo wonders. It’s haunting, still, to her. It’s haunting, still, to the entire Pepperdine and Malibu community.
But there was no time to ponder such impossible and unanswerable questions. Twenty-five miles up the road, on the property of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, a brush fire had begun. The Waves didn’t know. They had taken to Zuma Beach for a day of six-on-six or four-on-four. They can’t remember exactly, only that it wasn’t a typical practice. Something fun. Something to take their minds off things. Sicoli had asked Matthies to come down, be with the team.
“It was nice just to take a breath and be grateful, like a summer day,” Caputo said. They noticed the winds had picked up a bit but such an event is not unusual at Zuma, which is known for its magnificent surf and gusty winds. What they didn’t know is that those winds were the beginning of 50-mile per hour Santa Ana winds, ones that had begun 25 miles north, near the Santa Susana Field Laboratory.
Soon, those winds were pushing the fire directly south, at a rate too fast for firefighters to contain. Soon, flames were surrounding Matthies’ house. Soon, Pepperdine was being evacuated, and the Waves were taking refuge at Caputo’s house in Manhattan Beach, at sophomore Katie Gavin’s house, at junior Gigi Hernandez’s house. The Borderline shooting had been replaced on the news by the fire. The former would take lives, the latter nearly 100,000 acres of land and more than 1,600 buildings, in a span so fast if you had been gone for a day you’d have returned not to the lush and rolling hills of Malibu but to the charred, smoky remains.
School was canceled the next day. And the next. And the day after that – all the way through Thanksgiving. Matthies, alongside her husband, Dan, a firefighter, fought the fire from atop their roof.
Sports teams are invariably bound by adversity. Sometimes that comes in the form of losses. Physical challenges. Coming together after injuries. But those are expected. It is, as Knudsen told her team in the wake of the fire and shootings, what you sign up for. What Pepperdine had just endured, in the span of a single day that stretched into weeks, was unprecedented.
There’s no textbook, no directions, telling a team how to recover from a shooting, a fire and, when the rains began but no vegetation remaining to stop the mud from cascading down the canyons, mudslides.
Nobody tells you how to handle that.
“It was so much unknown,” junior Deahna Kraft said. “Everything this season is just curveball after curveball after curveball. It’s life. Life is happening. You have to just roll with the punches. The problem is when you get frustrated with life, expecting it to be one way, that’s when you get into trouble. We’re all really good at just having faith and going with the unpredictability of life.”
The unpredictability, the randomness of it all, doesn’t stop. Not for Pepperdine. Not for Malibu. Not for anyone. It doesn’t stop for players or coaches. It’s why, for the season-opening tournament in Hawai’i, on the last week of February, Marcio Sicoli, in his first season as head coach, wasn’t there.
He was home, tending to his newborn son, Max.
The same unpredictability of life that can be so tragic one night can be remarkably, miraculously beautiful on another.
“It’s a mixed feeling. I was super concerned in terms of I just want myself, my son, my life not to be a distraction,” Sicoli said. “That was my concern. I wasn’t concerned about anything else. I trust my team. I trust my players. I trust my coaching staff. I was concerned not to be a distraction, to be something else on their plate. That was really what my focus was and hopefully I did a good job. I thought that really set the tone, the team, culture, on that trip. This is their team. I’m just creating the tactical part of it but that’s their program. They’re going to be fine if I’m not there.”
He was there, sort of. He’d skype in at night with the team, and they’d smile and aww and laugh with Sicoli and the adorable, day-old Max.
During the day, the Waves would compete against Stanford, against St. Mary’s, against Hawai’i, against UCLA. Then they’d return to the Princess Kaiulani hotel in Waikiki, cram in a room, and hop on a call with their coach and his son.
“It makes a family,” Caputo said after the Waves returned from Hawai’i with three wins and just one loss. “It keeps everybody in touch.”
It’s March 6. Another Wednesday. Nearly five months after the shooting and the onset of the fires. Malibu hasn’t yet fully recovered, nor will it for months, perhaps years, to come. Sicoli is standing with Matthies, the Waves having just been swept, for the first time in school history, by UCLA at Zuma Beach.
“How long?” Sicoli wonders to Matthies about her coaching career. “Thirty-five years? I don’t think I can do it!”
Matthies laughs recalling the conversation. She laughs because she knows Sicoli can do it, and he will. In just a few months as head coach of the Waves, he has endured the shooting. The fire. One of his best players, Maddy Roh, tearing an ACL and being ruled out for the season.
He has both endured the terrible and cherished the wonderful in the birth of his son and the tangible growth and development and grittiness of his team.
“One of my philosophies is to keep it simple,” he says. “It’s important to talk to each player, and just making sure they know they belong: ‘All this is going on but you belong to a group. You belong to a team. You don’t need to go through this by yourself.’
“We did a great job doing that, and that’s a form of resilience. Resilience is a combination of challenge and environment. We had our challenge, a combination of the fires, then the shooting, we had a team environment, and that equals resilience.”
Since that March 6 date with UCLA, Pepperdine has shown its resilience. Over and over again. It upset No. 2 USC. It swept Long Beach, at Long Beach, for the first time. It has come together in a way a team rarely can, bound by one setback after the next, fueled by an uncommon resolve, faith in one another and an unwavering belief that something good must come of all of this.
“It’s unreal to see what they were able to put together,” assistant coach Jon Daze said. “I don’t know a lot of groups that can go through what they went through and still come out really successful.”
On April 13, the Pepperdine seniors walked out with their parents, had their names and accomplishments announced, a brief celebration for a brilliant four years as Waves.
When the day is finished and Cal Poly and Cal Berkeley are both vanquished, they leave not with the once-beautiful sands of Zuma Beach delicately falling off their limbs but with layers of mud caked onto their arms, their legs, their hair.
It’s fitting this way. In the same sense that Zuma Beach will not be the same for quite some time, neither will any player or coach or fan or parent or member of the Pepperdine community.
Caputo already feels it, sees the change in her mindset. The day after the Borderline shooting, her mom had tickets to the Goo Goo Dolls. She’d understand, she told Skylar, if she didn’t want to go, if it was too soon.
“No, let’s go,’” Skylar told her. “‘I’m not going to stop doing what I love to do because of it.’
“It made me reflect on ‘Yeah, my 22 years have been awesome but there are a lot of things I have yet to do.’”
Their season is not yet over. The Waves are the four seed in this weekend’s NCAA Tournament. Thirty-five years, Sicoli wondered? He still has to finish his first. A remarkable year. A brutal year. An oftentimes beautiful one, too.
“We have a bigger purpose we’re playing for,” Kraft said. “We’re playing for Maddy. We’re playing for the community of Pepperdine and Malibu. We’re playing for our coach.”
They’re playing like the Waves their school was named after: relentless, driving, pushing forward.
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