Few high school coaches in the state of California have enjoyed as much success as Palisades High pilot Carlos Gray. Since he arrived on campus in 2013 he has guided the Dolphins to six City Section titles (two with the girls, four with the boys). He was named State Coach of the Year in 2018 after leading the Palisades boys squad to the SoCal Regional semifinals. The next year he led the boys to a school-record 42 victories and the girls program to the City finals. He left to coach the boys team at Westlake High last spring but has returned to Palisades eager to power the Dolphins back to City supremacy. Prior to Palisades, Gray coached for 12 seasons at Malibu High and led the Sharks to girls titles in 2001 and 2007 and the boys to a league championship in 2002. He was recently interviewed by Van Nuys Coach Omri Azarly for LA Volleyball Podcast, when he talked about his coaching career:
OA: How have you and your family been handling the quarantine?
CG: Things have been okay here. I’m going a little stir crazy because my very existence is on the sideline so it’s been very challenging trying to find news ways to get that competitive outlet. My favorite thing now is I went out and got a new smoker. I’ve been trying to cook a lot. In fact, I’m about to do a 16-pound brisquette for the first time. I’ll have to trim it to get it into the smoker.
OA: How did you get your start in volleyball?
HS: I was a football and basketball player at St. Monica Catholic High School in Santa Monica. Long story short back in those days letterman jackets didn’t just have the letter and the pin, you could get a letter for each sport. I saw one of the guys had a letter with three sports on it and I wanted one of those. So my junior year a bunch of my really good friends were volleyball players and they said ‘Man, you can jump, come play’ and I was like “Alright.’ Then, Anne Hansen—I love that woman to death—was a pro beach volleyball player at the time and she comes up to me and goes ‘You should come play.’ I was like ‘You’re my coach?’ because this woman was beautiful, so I’m like ‘I’m in!’ and that was the end of it. Lo and behold I ended up playing volleyball. I went to Santa Monica College and there wasn’t a program when I first got there, but I waited a year and played there and I made All-Western State Conference at SMC. Then I tried out for Coach John Price at Cal State Northridge. That was before some of these other coaches way back in the day. Put it this way, the ball was still white and you could serve it and if the ball hit the net it was illegal. That’s how long ago I played… the game has completely changed. I actually made that team but they didn’t want to give me any money or any scholarship. In hindsight, I probably should’ve stopped but I didn’t and then I started coaching right after that. I coached every sport but didn’t fall into hardcore boys and girls volleyball until 1999-2000.
OA: What was it like coaching at Malibu High?
CG: It was a bit intimidating at times. I was fortunate in that I got to be a JV coach first, so I got to see where we were going, what schools we were playing, what the level was, I knew exactly what roster I was going to have coming back so it was a comfortable transition. All of the players were kind of pushing for me to take the varsity job when the varsity coach left and I was like ‘Okay, I’ll take it’ and then when the boys position opened up the principal literally walked to my classroom and said ‘I heard you might be interested in coaching the boys’ and I said ‘I can do boys as well.’ They said ‘Great, you’re hired!’ Shook my hand, said ‘That was your interview’ and walked away. That’s how I became the boys coach.
OA: So how would you describe your coaching style?
CG: I like to consider myself a communicator, a more cooperative coach. As I’ve progressed I’ve become more technical, but a lot of times in my younger days I’d ask the players ‘what do you guys think we should run here?’ I had players who understood that. My biggest thing is understanding that this is an experience these players are going to carry and those relationships last. The scores don’t last, except in my mind, but the interpersonal relationships last, so as a coach I work cooperatively with my players, I communicate with my players and I make sure they have a good time with it. I know it sounds kind of cliche, but that’s the way to have success.
OA: What made you decide to make the move from Malibu High to Palisades?
CG: Here’s an inside scoop… I was actually offered the Pali job the year before I took it and turned it down. They asked me to take that position in the fall of 2012 and I turned it down because the 2012-13 year was my son’s senior year at Malibu and I wanted to be there for his senior year. Lo and behold the position opened again in 2013 and I figured let’s take that challenge. I had a bunch of kids that had been on my club teams and it was a good transition. The kids got to know me rather quick. I remember sitting with my son and one of my best friends doing the negative and positive and everything was just positive.
OA: The girls made it to the City finals in your first season at Palisades. What did you learn from that?
CG: We struggled with our ball control that whole year. We had a very very good game against Granada Hills in the regular season and ended up beating them. When we played them again in the finals we were nervous, we were skiddish and I remember being in that huddle joking around, trying to loosen players up. I was singing songs, cracking jokes, trying to get us to relax. I give the other team credit. They were prepared, they were hungry and they punched us in the mouth.
OA: The next year you lost to Taft and Granada Hills early in the season but came back to win City. How did it feel to get your first championship at Pali?
CG: If I’m not mistaken we lost Game 1 of that finals match against Granada and I remember thinking ‘Oh, not again!’ because on paper I thought we were the stronger team. In the semifinals we played a really, really strong El Camino Real team in their place and I remember telling Chris Forrest, who was the coach at Pali before that, if we beat ECR we’ll be in good shape in the final and when we beat them in three I was feeling pretty good. So when we dropped Game 1 in the final I was afraid we’d tighten up again, but that team had great balance… we were going middle, outside, right and Isabel Kelly had a great match, Milena Gorum in the middle had a great match. We were running a 6-2 system. It was fun!
OA: Palisades’ girls lost in the semifinals in 2015 and lost in the finals the next two years. How tough were those seasons?
CG: You never want to see your players devastated like that when they put their heart and soul into something. You want to see them rewarded. For me, there were so many times I felt a sense of grattitude where I was telling them ‘Thank you for taking me on this ride.’ I will always remember that 2015 team because I think on paper it’s one of the more talented ones we’ve had. We had Olivia Zelon, who played libero at Texas, Isabel Kelly was on that team and I moved her to the outside after she was a middle the year before. We were stacked, but that year we ran into a transcendent player in Kaushana Williams, hence the reason she went to Long Beach State. I don’t care how good a coach you are, if you don’t have the physical talent to make it happen, you’re only going so far.
OA: In 2018 you pulled off a reverse sweep against Granada Hills? What do you remember about that match?
CG: That whole 2018 year I coached my butt off. Our top player, Alex Laita, was hurt for more than three quarters of the season. I believe she played in two regular season matches and two tournament matches before the playoffs. Granada was really good and they were a step ahead of us in the first two games. I told my setter Keely McMahon you’ve got to get off of Alex a little bit and start trusting your other teammates. Annie Wibbelsman and Caroline Kedeshian stepped up. In Game 4 they were beating us 21-16 and that was the first year of that format where you played after you lost because every team in the Open Division got seeded for state. In the back of mind I’m thinking ‘what am I going to tell these girls to get them motivated to play again?’ Then I look up at the score and it’s 18, then 19 before they got a sideout and I’m like we can get this game. Well, we got that game and we fed off that momentum the rest of the way. The most dominant image in my mind is my father-in-law. He has to ride a little scooter because he doesn’t walk well. So he was sitting on his scooter honking his horn and clapping when we won.
OA: After upsetting Granada Hills were you worried about a let down in the final?
CG: It was sense of relief in a sense. There’s a misconception about coaching Palisades that you just go get a bunch of club players who come to your school and you don’t have to do that much. I know that opinion is out there, but this team I literally built from the ground up. I had one player—one—playing the same position she did the year before and that was my setter Keely. To have that team overcome all that adversity and win that title against Taft was huge. We knew if we played well in the serve, serve-receive game we’d give ourselves a chance. We were in system about 65 percent of the time in that match whereas they were in system less than 40 percent. They had dominant athletes but we could tell where the ball was going and we were able to set up defense and play a good defensive game against them.
OA: In 2019 Palisades made it back to the finals but you were frustrated with the seeding that year. Why is that?
CG: It seems like certain programs get the benefit of the doubt. It didn’t add up. We had beaten a team head-to-head that was seeded above us and that angered me. I know it’s never going to be perfect but the year we lost to El Camino Real we shouldn’t have seen them until the finals. Things like that just irk me. Even when we won it in 2014 ECR was seeded ahead of us. We had to travel there in the semifinals and fortunately we beat them in three but they were a second-place team that year and we were the Western League champs. So there are lots of inconsistencies in terms of seeding. I’m an emotional guy. Sometimes I let it out.
OA: What was the gameplan going into the final against Eagle Rock and at what point did things start to go wrong?
CG: First and foremost I have to say [Coach] Tim Bergeron is truly phenomenal at what he does. I have the largest amount of respect for him because he has a giant program, he’s on all three levels, he’s hands-on with everything and he does it by himself. I knew we were in trouble against that team because we were not an elevate-terminate team. We didn’t have a dominant outside hitter. We were starting two freshmen on the outside. By contrast, he took his two players, he stuck them on the outside, he set them high balls and that was it. You could not take that team out of system. They could pass the ball seven feet off the net
(Continued from Page 8) and still get it to their best hitter and get her a decent swing. Those two girls had what I call elephant hearts and that team just dug us to death. If I had to lose to somebody it was to that man because I know how much effort he puts in. There are some amazing coaches around the City, including in our league, but all credit to Tim for that one.
OA: In your first boys season in 2014 you made the semifinals and the next year you won City. What do you remember?
CG: As good as that team was we graduated a ton of guys and to come back with that team with three freshmen playing vital roles was huge. It was fun. The Carson team we played in the finals had a lot of heart and I coached against a lot of those players in club. I had a comfort level with Jeff and Scott Stuart because both were on my team that was a game out of getting the bronze that year at Junior Nationals and Jason Wittbrodt and I had a long history. When he was 14 he won a silver medal with me. I wish we’d done more the year before because Nick [Wittbrodt] was an incredible setter.
OA: How heartbreaking was it to lose to El Camino Real in 2016 in one of the closest City finals ever?
CG: That one sticks out to me as much as the girls because we’d beaten them earlier in the season. Alyssa Lee did a great job coaching that team, their two big guns on the left side were both seniors and I believe their libero was also a senior. They were hungry, they wanted it. I did everything I possibly could to put a bigger block up against Cole Chea but at that point they were going almost exclusively to the four ball and he caught fire. That year we weren’t a real big, strong team but we were fast. We had to be in system and move the ball around, but there is no substitution for being big and being able to go up and get the high ball like they were able to do.
OA: In 2017 your lineup included Jeff and Scott Stuart, Akhil Tangutur, Justin Howard and Miles and Marcus Partain. Is it any surprise you won City and got to play Corona del Mar in regionals?
CG: We saw CDM at the Santa Barbara Tournament of Champions. We knew they were huge and loaded that year but we were all sophomores and juniors so we took it like this is cool to be on this stage but next year is our year. When I interviewed for the Pali job one of the questions they asked me was what is it going to take to make an impact at the state level? One of the things they wanted from me was to take that next step, so to be at that state level and the following year to actually win a match at the state level and to be one of the favorites to win state when they were seniors, I feel like we accomplished that.
OA: In 2018 Palisades was the team to beat in the City and you won the title. What matches stand out most that year?
CG: We played Chatsworth at the Dos Pueblos Tournament and they were No. 2 in the City. [Coach] Sina Aghassy had them ready. They blocked so well, they were not intimidated and served pretty tough. They were up and committed on the block, but we it was first to 42 points and we were able to beat them. Then, in the City semifinals that year we dropped the first two games to El Camino Real. They came to our gym and played really, really well. We were one-dimensional and they capitalized on that. It was a wake-up call and from that point forward I knew we had to be better at the point of attack. We turned it on and took the last three sets. In the finals rematch against Chatsworth we had a lot of service errors because I told my guys we needed to serve tough but we were good enough to sweep. We beat a good South Torrance team in the first round of state, then saw Corona del Mar again in the semis. The bottom line is that CDM team was special. Jeff [Stuart] got a concussion and missed a week of school.
OA: In 2019 most of your boys were seniors, you finished 42-3, won the Dos Pueblos and Redondo tournaments and three-peated as City champions. What made the team so special?
CG: We got the finals of the Best of the West and lost to Newport Harbor, but for me the bigger thrill from that tournament was finally getting to play Loyola [in the semifinals and we ended up beating them. They have at least five or six Palisades kids on their roster almost every year. Jeff and Scott chose Palisades over Loyola. Macus and Miles could’ve gone to Harvard-Westlake, Akhil could’ve gone to Loyola but they all chose to go to Pali, so that was my most gratifying win, because when you beat a program like that it means your legit. You’re not just a good City team. You’re legit in any gym you walk into, not to mention that [Loyola coach] Mike Boehle and I go way back. He ended up playing at LMU when they still had a program and I was one of his training partners. He remembers me when I used to be able to jump. My biggest thing that year was trying to figure out how hard to push. The difference between a great player and a talented player is the mentality and the drive and all of those guys had that drive. So it was managing injuries, listening to my team. Not one time did they big-time me or not listen. A lot of the time I took my cue from them as far as what offense to run. We got to the TOC semifinals without Justin, who was at Coachella, then we went to Redondo and won that. We dominated Mira Costa in the semis. It was a display. W hen we played them again in the regional semis they thought they were going to lose. Half of their parents didn’t show up to that match, but it comes down to passing and they were in system over 75 percent of that match in the state semi. That’s how they beat us.
OA: How did you challenge that group of players in practice considering how smart and skilled they were?
CG: With my guys I did a lot of adjusted scoring drills. So if I had my starting lineup on one side I’d put them down 18-10 or something like that to make them have to really fight to come back in certain game situations or I might limit what sets they could take to challenge them. That was at Pali.
When I was at Malibu I was so forunate that [Pepperdine coach] Marv Dunphy took me under his wing and let me go to his practices a lot. His philosophy was you go from the simple to the complex but you only want three to four drills at practice. Your practice should not be all drills. Your practice should be drill early, play late with an emphasis on what you just worked. So if you are working blocking you do two blocking drills, you do one other drill, you get into your sixth man with an emphasis on that blocking skill. I watched him do it and this was back when he had a nationally-ranked team. I could come in and ask him anything and he was very receptive. So I have carried that philosophy into everything I do. I try to drill early, play late and play a lot.
OA: What did you tell your players on the side switch when they lost the first set in the City final against ECR?
CG: I told them very simply that this team is not intimidated by you. There were teams where Akhil would go up and hit two four balls in warmups and the match was over because the kids would look at him and go ‘ugh!’ Well, ECR had played teams on that level all year. They were in the Gold Bracket at the Best of the West. As a matter of fact they were watching our games. When we played Servite every single one of those dudes was there. They were sitting right there watching—and not as fans. They were watching going ‘okay, in this situation he likes to do this.’ They were paying attention. So we had to refocus and we won the next three sets to complete our three-peat.
OA: You faced Mira Costa in the state semifinals, a squad you had already beat. What was the difference in the rematch?
CG: Rarely do I second guess myself as a coach and say maybe I should’ve done this or that. I think in Game 2 I should’ve gone 5-1 around Marcus and let Miles just be opposite instead of staying 6-2. Our passing wasn’t as crisp so that might be the one thing I’d change. They just played a great match. I felt good about our practice. We went over the film, we went over tendencies, we knew what lineups they had, who we were serving in certain situations, what offense we were running but they just seemed to have all the answers.
OA: After that season you decided to take your talents over to Westlake High. What sparked that change?
CG: I primarily moved because of my family. I needed to be closer to home. That was my main concern at that point. There were parents who were upset and saying those guys are leaving so now you’re gone too, but it’s never been about wins and losses for me. It’s always been about developing a program where I feel comfortable and that I feel is special. That program is special now. Westlake is 20 minutes from my house. I live in Simi Valley. I would finish Pali practice at maybe 5, I would talk to players and coaches until 6 so I wasn’t getting home until 8 or 8:30 sometimes. Heaven forbid if something happened and my wife were to call I wouldn’t be able to get there. That’s the reason I left.
OA: You were 3-1 at Westlake when the coronavirus hit and all of a sudden you get fired. What was the reason for that?
CG: First and foremost I have a lot of respect for that program. There were no parent complaints. It wasn’t player complaints. The program had turned in a good direction and had we not had this pandemic I think we would have made a really solid run in CIF Division 3. The bottom line is there are other aspects to coaching besides what goes on between the lines. There are paperwork things, there are overall program philosophy things and there are interpersonal things that in their athletic director’s mind weren’t getting done the way he wanted them to and he decided to make a change based on that. We had tryouts scheduled. It wasn’t an on-court performance thing. It was that difference in philosophy, so there wasn’t a lot I could do about it. I got a lot of positive emails from parents and players saying what a difference I had made. You never want a job to end in that manner but to realize some of the impact I had it was really special.
OA: Who are some of your favorite coaches in the City?
CG: First I’ve got to bring up my boy Sina, a fellow diehard Eagles fan. He’s actually hung out at my house once or twice and when I came to one of his practices he was generous enough to let me be there and watch him work. Raoul let me run drills in one of his practices. Memo I think is amazing, what he did last year in girls on that run was phenomenal. You’ve got Arman at Taft, Ralph Mertens at Carson and I’ve already talked about Tim Bergeron. Also, Dave Suarez, Dustyn Woropay and Jeff Nakagawa who all coach with me. I learn from them everyday. None of the success I’ve had would have been possible without them. It was a collaborative effort. There was never a ‘me,’ it was always a ‘we.’ There are times when I don’t see any adjustment because I’m focused on something else and one of them will tap me on the shoulder and say ‘you may want to try this.’
OA: What is the biggest win of your career against a City school? What is your most disappointing loss to a City school?
CG: For the girls, it would be the semifinals at Granada Hills in 2018 because of the stakes and the situation in that match. We don’t get to the final that year unless we come from 0-2 and 21-16 down so I’d pick that one as my biggest win. The loss is a tie between the girls final in 2019 when we lost in four to Eagle Rock and the 2016 boys final when we lost in five to ECR, because I would’ve had a four-peat—the first time ever in school history. It had been done in girls before, but never in boys.
OA: What are the best boys and girls teams you have seen in your tenure?
CG: For the boys that 2018 Corona del Mar team with Kevin Kobrine the year Jeff [Stuart] got hurt is one of the best prep volleyball teams I’ve ever seen. That team was ridiculous. For the girls, I’d pick the Redondo team we played after we won City in 2014. They had that phenomenal outside hitter Yaasmeen Bedart-Ghani who went to Texas. That team was so deep that they had two Division I girls who didn’t start.
OA: Who are some of the best boys and girls players you have seen in the City?
CG: The first guy that pops into my head is Cole Chea from ECR. Also Jaden Misaalefua from Carson and they had another guy who ended up being the libero for Long Beach—he was ridiculous. Taft has had quite a few guys and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the setter at ECR. Chatsworth has had so many good players like Khari Osborne, who jumps out of the gym. Then of course for the girls there was Kashauna Williams of ECR and Carissa Bradford of Granada Hills. Watching her and Alex [Laita] go toe-to-toe in that match was fun.
OA: In the last six years you have lost a lot of weight. How has that journey been for you?
CG: It’s been very rewarding. I was 451 pounds at the beginning of the year I had surgery in 2013. I had told the doctors that I wasn’t going to have the surgery in the middle of the season or if I had to have it, I wasn’t going to have it during playoffs. My surgeon said I see you’ve lost 42 pounds, I’d like to move up your surgery date to Wednesday and this was in early October. I took it and I walked into the gym, sat everyone in the program down and told them what the doctor said. They were so excited for me and to lose all that weight and have the support of the team was phenomenal.
OA: I know that you like to travel. What are some favorite places you have visited?
CG: I love London, absolutely love it. If I ever could live in another country, I’d kind of want to live there. Spain was phenomenal and an underrated country is Malta.
OA: What advice do you have for the seniors who did not get to finish their season?
CG: Understand that if you overcome this form of adversity there’s nothing life can throw at you that you won’t be able to handle. I know you want to play beach with your friends. You want to get in and practice, just make sure you’re safe. High school athletics is important, but remember there are bigger life lessons.
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