When 5’7” Troy Donenfeld first came to play volleyball for Laguna Beach High, Coach Lance Stewart wasn’t sure what to make of him. “Well, I knew I didn’t have a middle blocker,” said Stewart, laughing.
What the coach had was a libero in the making. “I enjoy playing defense and being in charge of the back row,” said the diminutive senior and co-captain of the 2011 Orange Coast league champs, who will take on Laguna’s long-time nemesis Corona del Mar tomorrow in the CIF Division II title match at Cypress College.
Introduced to U.S. volleyball in 2000 as a way to add more spirited rallies and excitement to the game, the libero, which means “free” in Italian, is a defensive specialist responsible for receiving the serve and the only player not limited by rules of rotation. Liberos always play in the back row and are typically quick, with good reflexes and are able to squat low in order to dig and pass the ball. In short, liberos usually are not tall.
Growing up in the volleyball-crazy community of Emerald Bay, Donenfeld was mostly a spectator of the two and four-man beach volleyball scene. He finally tired of watching his taller friends have all the fun, so the 11-year-old got off the sand and into the game.
He would later join several friends at Balboa Bay club, where he began to hone his skills as a setter. But his penchant for the dig attracted him to libero. “I really enjoy playing defense,” Donenfeld said. “To me there’s nothing better than digging a ball or getting a ball up.”
Donenfeld became the starting libero as a junior and quickly began to show promise at the position, garnering second team all-league and third-team all-CIF honors with a league-leading 211 digs and 526 serves received.
With last year’s towering trio of seniors Travis Woloson, Scottie Chapel and Reed Thompson no longer patrolling the net, Donenfeld’s job on defense got a little tougher this season. Team blocks are down by 24 percent, while team digs are up by the same margin. “I think there’s just a lot more balls getting to the back row,” said Donenfeld, who has a team high 259 digs through last Saturday’s third round CIF victory over Irvine at Dugger Gym.
“In any sport, defense is the key, you know. That’s how you win,” Donenfeld said.
But the Breakers weren’t always winning this season. They started strong, going 7-2 out of the gate, including a runner-up finish at the Foothill Tournament. Then came the mid-season slump that saw them drop eight straight, five at the OC Championships, where Stewart rested many of his starters when it became clear that his team was out of the running.
With their libero helping to lead the way, the Breakers rebounded to win their last 14, with only Corona del Mar standing between them and their second straight CIF title. “In order to be a leader, you’ve got to make plays. You’ve got to be prepared. You’ve got to earn a voice,” said Stewart. “[Donenfeld’s] earned that right.”
Both player and coach know that Corona del Mar presents a formidable obstacle to a Breaker repeat. “They have so much talent. It’s crazy,” Donenfeld said. “We hung in there with them and almost took them down,” he continued, recalling two tough mid-March losses to the former Division I Sea Kings.
The Breakers will have to be at their best tomorrow night. “We can’t really let up in any area of the game. It’s really going to start with the passing, the blocking and the defense,” Donenfeld said. “If all that’s working, we just got to put balls away.
“Corona del Mar is really good. We don’t match up very well with them,” said Stewart. But, he said, “anything can happen in the championship match.”