New Mira Costa Athletic Complex hosts return of MCHS athletes
The $39 million Mira Costa High School Athletic Complex was unveiled last Monday, albeit virtually, with the Manhattan Beach Unified School District’s release of a video tour of the sparkling new 79,000 square foot facility.
The video was produced by Mira Costa students and featured several student-athletes as tour guides through the beautiful but empty facility.
It wasn’t the debut anyone expected when the highly anticipated project began as a cornerstone of 2016’s Measure EE bond measure, but the students — as they have been doing for the last year — made do with the tools they had at their disposal.
But the real unveiling, though unofficial, occurred last Tuesday afternoon, when the athletic facility opened its doors for the first time to actual athletes. The Mustang varsity girls volleyball team held the first practice in the new gym, which replaces Fisher Gym, the legendary 67-year-old fieldhouse that had become a bit creaky in its latter years.
MCHS Principal Ben Dale stood at the side of the gym almost overcome with emotion. He’d been part of the project since it was just a sparkle in the eye of school district leaders, prior to the successful Measure EE campaign in 2016.
“I’m overjoyed,” Dale said. “I feel like pinching myself to make sure I’m not dreaming.”
Dale and some of the coaches had been folding up the new bleachers and unpacking chairs when some of the volleyball players began arriving. The gym was suddenly filled with ecstatic whoops.
“These kids, they had a tough road the last year,” Dale said. “And just to see them in this wonderful facility, to see them that excited — you watch them practicing in there, and there’s no indication that they’ve had this struggle. It’s like it’s just washed away.”
Coach Cam Green said the last year had been particularly tough for his players. The team had a perfect mix of seniors and talented younger girls and there were high expectations for what they could achieve this season. And then last March, COVID-19 arrived, and a year of each player’s high school playing career was taken away.
“It was quite an ordeal, man,” Green said.
And so, with the help of Dale, athletic director Glenn Marx, and girls volleyball booster president Angela Mullins, it was made possible to give the team one small gift in compensation for its lost year: a week of practice and a single home game at the end of it, against archrival Marymount.
Green, who’d seen the gym previous to that first practice last week, was nevertheless moved by the experience. Fisher Gym held a lot of memories for him. He is a Mira Costa alum who played on a CIF championship team in 1990 and was an assistant coach for the MCHS boys team that won a national title in 2001. Green then spent two decades as an AVP and college coach before returning to his alma mater in 2018 to take over as head coach for the Mustang girls. His first season as head coach was the last for Fisher Gym.
“I mean, for me having been through the whole thing — I played in the old gym, and I coached in the old gym. We were the last team to be in the old gym, then we were the first team to walk into it,” Green said. “And because I had seen kind of the guts of the new gym as it was being built and the progression of it, I had kind of an idea of what I was walking into. But to see the girls walk into it, and understand that they were actually going to practice and play in there….Man, it was priceless. To say the least, it was really a cool thing to be a part of.”
Team captain Nikki Underwood, an outside hitter who will be playing at Duke University this fall, said she and her teammates were thrilled when they heard they’d have a chance to spend a week playing together in the new gym. And when the moment finally arrived and they walked into the gym for practice, they were met by a sparkling court surrounded by large photos — the senior photos of the team’s 10 graduating players.
“It was just really exciting,” Underwood said. “It felt really good just to be in there with everybody and see the coaches and work with them again.”
All the players had to get tested for COVID-19 and everyone had to play with a mask, which Underwood acknowledged was a bit weird at first. “Definitely at first, breathing in between points and all that,” she said. “But after a while, you kind of get used to it, as if it’s not really there.”
Green said the practices will be something he’ll always remember.
“Epic. They were epic,” the coach said. “I mean, just to be in that building. They said it every day, ‘Oh, man, we’re so stoked to be here.’ Even though we were just practicing, we were competing right off the bat, because how much can you get done in four days, right? It wasn’t like we were going to train a bunch and try to teach all these different techniques. It was basically like we’ve got to get on the floor and start playing together. So every day, they were so excited to be in there and compete and get after it. So it was really cool. Practice meant everything to them.”
Though the pervading emotion was joy, it came with a bittersweet pang, the nagging thought of the season that never was.
“To see the type of volleyball we were playing in just a super short period of time, as exciting as it was, it also was kind of painful,” Green said. “Because you had to realize what you missed out on. It made me think about what could have been. Which is hard, because you don’t want to live in that world, right? You want to be grateful for what you have. But it was hard not to not to look at us and go ‘Dang, we would have been really something.’ It felt like this was going to be a year where we were going to take a big step into the top ranks.”
But the fact that Dale and Marx went to bat for the team and gave the team a very special week, Green said, made the sweet far outweigh the bitter.
“Because they didn’t have to,” Green said. “There’s a lot of schools that weren’t doing anything for girls volleyball for those five days, and for us to have a shot to play was pretty special. We were all really grateful. They could have just gotten the boys ready, and basketball ready, and just said, ‘I’m sorry.’ But they didn’t.”
Underwood said a lot of the players still had a club volleyball season, so all was not lost. Even so, she said, for the seniors, having this small taste of Mustang volleyball was something to treasure.
“The whole tradition of playing Mira Costa volleyball, being a senior on the team and getting to play with the younger girls and have them look up to you — it’s something that I’ve always looked forward to, because that’s how I’ve always looked at the program,” Underwood said. “I’ve always looked up to the girls older than me. So having that taken away, it was a little bit tough. But I think the time we had at the gym with the girls was really special.”
Underwood said everyone was blown away by the facility itself.
“Seeing everything, all the details they put into it, is incredible,” she said. “Like having no lights above the volleyball court so it doesn’t affect us playing…It’s really nice.”
The week culminated in the match against Marymount on Saturday. Green said that walking into the gym on game day was an almost unreal experience.
“You see the bleachers down for the first time, and then you get a real scope of how big this gym is, and how many people could fit in there,” he said. “And you start to think about having a giant crowd in there watching the game, you know…It was unreal. It probably took me a set to realize, ‘Wait, there’s a real game, with another team across the other side. This is actually happening.’ Crazy. Awesome.”
Though the Mustangs lost in five sets, the match had a storybook quality in keeping with the storied history of the two volleyball powerhouses. Loyola won the first set, Costa the second, Loyola the third, Costa the fourth, and the teams were tied at 7-7 in the fifth when Loyola went on a run and took the set and match.
“It was exactly what you would hope it would be, except in terms of not winning our one match,’” Green said.
“Playing that one match was really exciting, just to be in there and have real competition with another team,” Underwood said. “And we have a lot of history with that team. It was really fun to get in there and play them again.”
Green, who coached at USC for seven years and two years at Long Beach State, said the MCHS Athletic Complex is better than most Division I schools.
“I coached in college for nine years,” Green said. “So I’ve traveled around the country to a ton of schools, and it’s nicer than 95 percent of the schools I’ve been to.”
The new gym is 20,500 square feet and seats 2,100. It is believed to be the largest high school gym in LA County and “will draw the oohs and ahs,” as the LA Times reported last month. But the comprehensiveness of the athletic complex (which was designed by Gensler, the architectural firm which also recently designed the stadium that houses the Major League Soccer team Los Angeles Football Club) is what makes it truly stand apart. There is a second, multipurpose gym, called The Pavillion, which is large enough for two basketball courts — with adjustable rims for youth basketball — or three volleyball courts. There are two weight training rooms, upstairs and downstairs, the latter with a view to the football field outside and the former with a retractable garage door that opens to the field (and a Kobe Bryant “Mamba Mentality” quote, selected by students, adorning a wall: “Hard work outweighs talent every time.”). A wrestling room has both a practice area and competition areas, and a dance/color guard/yoga room that comes with a full sound system. There’s a room for athletes to study game film, a study area with kitchenettes for athletes to hang out, as well as classrooms and a network of coaches offices.
“It’s really a facility that has three major focus areas,” Dale said. “It’s a facility for our athletes. It’s a facility for the community; our pavilion gym is really built to be a community space. And then the third thing is we hope it’s a destination for schools looking for tournaments, for both high schools and NCAA. We’ve made the gym ceiling higher so that it’s NCAA-rated for volleyball. We were really thoughtful about making the gym as versatile as possible for our kids, our community, and for schools looking for tournaments and showcases.”
A lot of thought was also given to tying the facility in with MCHS history. The foyer pays homage to Fisher Gym, with the letters from the old gym now announcing the entrance to the new facilities, a plaque honoring legendary educator Carl Fisher in the entryway, and portions of the original Fisher Gym floor installed overhead.
“We didn’t want to lose the Fisher legacy,” Dale said.
The main hallway is also its Hall of Fame, with wall displays honoring 14 athletes — seven male, seven female: Dewey Weber, Joe Moeller, Mike Dodd, Jeff Rohrer, Renee Williams Smith, Barbara Fontana, Eric Leckner, Laura Cattivera, Eric Fonoimoana, Holly McPeak, Alex Klineman, Kimberly Keiber, the Girls Athletic Association, and the Tavai family.
More than anything, Dale said, the impression the entirety of the facility makes is that it brings everything together — athletes, community, and history — in an elegant, seamless, and yet utilitarian fashion.
“What I think most about the building is how well it flows,” Dale said. “There’s a life to it, and where things are located, and it just makes sense for athletes and coaches and teachers…There’s no moment where you think this is out of place. It’s hard to describe until you’re in here, but that’s one of the things that everybody who comes in and sees it for the first time says: the placement of everything just makes sense.”
MBUSD school board president Jen Fenton, who helped lead the campaign for Measure EE before she became an elected official, said she got chills the first time she walked through the new facility.
“Between the conceptual design, the campaign, the election, and then now sitting on the board and being able to review the plan and then walk through the actual building, it’s been a process,” Fenton said. “But it’s amazing. And when you walk into this facility, after seeing it on paper…it presents an entirely different view when you walk through those doors. You are just presented with this magnificent facility that can be used not only by our district but by our community beyond MBUSD. The possibilities are endless.”
“I love the brand. I love the logos. I love the history that they’ve Incorporated, the color scheme,” Fenton said. “From soup to nuts, they have thought of everything.”
Fenton recalled a time well before the Measure EE campaign when Susan Underwood, an MCHS volleyball parent who Fenton described as “a mastermind” behind the push for the new facility, urged her to go look at Redondo Union’s new athletic complex and compare it to Fisher Gym.
“I hadn’t seen the Redondo structure,” Fenton said. “And then I toured our old gym, and it felt like Alcatraz. So dirty, and dark, almost like you were in prison. So knowing Redondo had this structure and here at Mira Costa we had this shriveling little flower…That’s why it was important for us to campaign and to come together as a community.”
Superintendent Mike Matthews said the athletic complex represents a major victory for the district after a long, trying year, and credited many unsung heroes who made this vision come to full fruition.
“It is everything we imagined and more, and it will serve our students and our community for decades,” Matthews said. Every time I see it, I am grateful for the immense amount of work that went into creating and passing the bond measure, the design process, and the construction process. Dr. Dawnalyn Murakawa-Leopard has led this process, and did a spectacular job. Our Board has made tough and smart decisions every step of the way. Our architectural and construction partners hit a home run and I know they are thrilled as well.”
Matthews, in fact, was so excited about the completion of the facility that he was one of the handful of people who witnessed that first volleyball practice, the unofficial unveiling of the new gym. Like Dale, it almost left him speechless. After a long wait made more grueling by this last pandemic year, Matthews had just two words to describe the experience.