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Digging Volleyball to be a Better Student

A unique athletic program for alternative schools motivates kids to come to class.

No gang colors. No spectators. Coed teams.

Friday's volleyball tournament at Main Beach in Santa Cruz was not your typical high school athletic event.

This is the Monterey Bay Alternative Schools Athletic League, a one-of-a-kind program for at-risk students.

Most alternative schools in California lack sports. However, in the Monterey Bay region, alternative schools from four counties are invited to participate in the MBASAL.

Fair to say, the competition is less intense than most prep sports.

Bryan Love, from New School in Watsonville, described it as a broad mix of students from a variety of backgrounds, adding "but it's also super positive."

Laughter, jabs at fellow teammate's aversion to diving for a ball and the ever-present question from teenagers—"when's lunch?"—peppered the matches.

Some girls wear hoop earrings or skinny jeans for the matches. Many of the boys may have been more comfortable on a soccer field, judging from their two-handed overhead throws.

But becoming athletes at alternative schools is not just for school pride. Playing sports counts toward physical education and health credit requirements. New School is a "last chance" program for students who have struggled in a traditional school setting. Some have gang ties. All need to make up credits so they can graduate. Renaissance High, another Watsonville school competing Friday, is another credit-recovery program for Pajaro Valley students.

"They need this type of activity," said Renaissance High Principal Artemisa Cortez. "Even though they're having fun, it's also academic."

The MBASAL, operated by the Santa Cruz County Office of Education, is the only alternative high school league in the state. For more than two decades, it has organized coed athletic competition in beach volleyball, basketball, softball and soccer for alternative high schools in four central California counties.

Uniforms and fees to play in the league come through donations and fundraisers. Cortez praised Watsonville Rotary for covering many of those costs for her school.

Most of these student-athletes did not compete in sports, let alone volleyball, at their former schools. There are more digs than sets and spikes. Fist-bumping the ball appeared to be the preferred way to get it over the net.

Shoshana Coplan, the Renaissance High volleyball coach and science teacher, estimated a third of her players had been exposed to volleyball before coming out for the team. Now they practice before school and at lunch.

"They've come a long ways," Coplan said. "They've learned from the bottom up."

Perla Morales, 15, is a sophomore at New School. She came there to catch up on school credits after having a hard time at Pajaro Valley High School, and said the atmosphere at New School has helped her focus on her studies.

"It's like a family," Perla said.

Neither Perla nor her teammate, 18-year-old senior Laura Martinez, considered themselves athletes before.

For Laura, playing volleyball is a way to de-stress.

"It gets you out of trouble and makes you think positive things," she said.

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