Dec 10, 2015

Westlake Volleyball Coach Reflects on Three Decades of Success

Reporting Texas

Westlake's Al Bennett, head coach of the Chaparral's volleyball team for the past 27 years, is back in action coaching against Bowie during recent district action at Westlake High School. Bennett who has taken the team to four state titles suffered a stroke on March 28. (RODOLFO GONZALEZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

Westlake Chaparrals coach Al Bennett, who has led the school’s volleyball team for the past 27 years, at a game last spring. Rodolfo Gonzalez/Austin American-Statesman

Four faded, blue banners in the gym tell the history of Westlake High School volleyball — four state championships and a quarter century straight of making it to the post-season.

What the banners don’t reveal is how a Canadian coach with no background in volleyball helped the Westlake team become one of the most respected in the history of Texas high school sports.

Coach Al Bennett, 60, was born and raised in Ontario, far from most volleyball hotbeds. Growing up, Bennett played what all his childhood friends played — hockey. He moved to Austin in 1979 after meeting his future wife at a friend’s wedding in the city. He first played volleyball recreationally at church.

“There were 25 of us,” Bennett said. “Nobody played the real game.”

He picked up enough of the basics to be hired by St. Austin Catholic School to start its girl’s volleyball program. He hand-tied the school’s first volleyball net and sought mentors to teach him the intricacies of the game.

Two mentors were the volleyball coaches at the University of Texas at Austin.

“Everything comes from Glen Lietzke and Mick Haley,” Bennett said, referring to the former UT coaches. “That’s where I learned everything I know about volleyball.”

In 1988, Bennett moved to Westlake High School and took over a team that had never made it past the first round of the regional playoffs. Two years later, Westlake made it to the regional finals.

“We had a lot of Division I players come out of that group,” Bennett said of the squad, which had players make the teams at the University of North Arizona and Illinois State University.

In 1991, Westlake beat Katy Taylor High School to win its first state title. Bennett said that team lacked blue-chip talent, but made up for it with hard work and cohesion.

“There weren’t any special players that came out of that group … but it was just the right group that had the right chemistry, and all the stars aligned,” Bennett said.

Westlake added another state title in 1993 and began a streak that included 11 straight regional finals and two more state championships, in 2002 and 2004. The Chaparrals pumped out top talent, including Sara Shaw, who went to University of Southern California and now plays professionally in Germany; and Grace Weghorst, who plays at Harvard.

Bennett’s run, particularly in the early 1990s, was buoyed by a wave of success across Westlake girls’ athletics. The girls’ basketball team won three state championships between 1993 and 1996.

“There was a thirst here for girls to succeed,” Bennett said. “Things really started to flow for our girls’ athletic program.”

The Eanes school district, one of the most affluent in Texas,  has always had an advantage because both its middle schools feed into a single high school. That has made it easier for Bennett to coordinate with middle school coaches and provided consistency for players.

Bennett said that early exposure to the way Westlake volleyball is run has helped at the high school level.

“If you’re using the same language and same verbiage, if you’re using the same technique all the way through, they can get into more systems because they understand the basics,” Bennett said of the players.

Bennett has sometimes run practices on Eanes district campuses to familiarize young players with how he runs the high school team. Senior Claire Hahn said Bennett knew her name when she was a middle school student.

“I could tell he cared about me,” Hahn said, “and wants you to be the best player out there.”

Not everything has gone smoothly for Bennett. On March 24, Bennett suffered a minor stroke. In the early morning hours of March 28, he suffered another, more severe one.

Since the two setbacks, Bennett has dialed back his coaching duties. He has delegated more to his assistant coaches, he can’t serve the ball in practice, and he occasionally uses a cane to walk. His players have assumed a new role as well.

“I needed them a lot more than they needed me, because what they gave me was the inspiration to do the things I needed to do to overcome limitations I had,” Bennett said.

The Westlake Chaparrals still make the playoffs most years, but haven’t won a state title since 2004 — though they have had four runner-up finishes. Bennett said the last few years have taught him an important lesson: It’s not always about winning.

“I’ve learned that it’s all about what we do to get to that point to maximize our potential as a team,” Bennett said.

As he approaches his 61st birthday in January and celebrates almost three decades of coaching, Bennett isn’t sure when he will retire — but he has thought about the legacy he wants to leave.

“The legacy is Westlake volleyball. It’s not Al Bennett,” Bennett said. “It’s what Westlake volleyball represents to everyone else in Texas. There’s been a hundred, maybe a thousand kids now that have established what that Westlake legacy is.”