The women’s volleyball program has endured a lot of disappointment over the past 40 years.
The competition in their conference has been levels ahead, while Santa Ana has struggled to recruit competitive players that could make up the difference.
This season is different.
Head coach Troy Abbey knew it on Sept. 21, when Santa Ana upset conference powerhouse Cypress in five sets and he realized this team could compete with anyone.
Santa Ana accumulated the most wins in program history this season with an 18-6 record. They also appeared in the second round of the CCCAA Southern Bracket, although they lost to College of the Canyons in three sets.
“Everyone’s going to look at this season and say ‘Santa Ana’s on the top,’ ” said outside hitter Matilde Teixeira, who was recently named first team All-Orange Empire Conference, “People know Santa Ana College now.”
The Dons’ last winning season came under a different head coach – and in a different century.
It was 1983, when Hall of Fame coach Nancy Warren led the Dons to a 10-4 overall record. She also led the Dons to their only state championship in 1977.
However, before coming to Santa Ana College in 2001, Abbey was no stranger to the sweet taste of victory.
He had led La Habra High School to a CIF Championship and Division II State Regional Championship.
His tenure with the Dons has not seen the same results.
Abbey says the program’s biggest obstacle was its continuous struggle with recruitment, and the nearby institutional competition.
“We’ve had a tough time getting the higher level athletes. This isn’t a hotbed for volleyball. It’s always been a battle to recruit since all the conference teams are close in proximity,” said Abbey. “Then you’ve got nearby schools like Hope, Vanguard, and Westcliff, all trying to get the same people.”
Though last year’s team went 7-16 overall, they returned two of their most impactful players.
Outside hitter Kassandra Zavala led the 2021 team in kills and setter Kaiden Raif led the team in assists and service aces.
Raif made the 2022 second team All-Orange Empire Conference, as she led the team with 786 assists.
However, the team’s most impactful contributors came from across the Atlantic Ocean.
This season’s leaders in kills, digs, and serve aces are a pair of Missouri Valley College transfers from Portugal.
Originally from Castelo Da Maia High School in Portugal, Matilde Teixeira came to the United States through the Next Level Agency. Even after coming off the bench, she led Missouri Valley in kills, being named to the all-conference third team.
Teammate Ines Lopes attended Oliveira do Bairro, only an hour apart from Teixeira.
Following the same route, she also joined the Next Level Agency and transferred to Missouri Valley. Lopes was second in digs after coming off the bench for Missouri Valley.
Lopes and Teixeira’s time together at the Next Level Agency led them to a tournament this past summer in Southern California. They loved California, but especially loved the culture and hospitality shown from Santa Ana College representatives.
“The teaching program, as well as the criminal justice and educational opportunities,” led Teixeira to visit the school.
At SAC, she delivers powerful spikes that become incredibly difficult to dig. Because of this, she quickly became a fan favorite. At any moment she could deliver a highlight-reel worthy spike. She was named the CCCAA state player of the week after their road win at Cypress on Oct. 21.
Another new player was detrimental to the team’s success.
Outside hitter Alison Caswell, who originally transferred from Cypress to play beach volleyball at Santa Ana, is second in kills on the team. Caswell was also named to the second team All-Orange Empire Conference.
Caswell locates her hits with precision, making her opponents stress over covering the entire court.
The sharp contrast of play style between Caswell and Teixeira thrived on the court, as they have a combined 552 kills in 23 games.
Abbey says the toughest part is convincing recruits to join, because when they look online they get influenced by the program’s poor previous records.
“We’ve had some pretty good teams in the past, but the other conference teams were way better than they are this year,” Abbey said. “This year’s been fun. I’ve been able to spend more time strategizing than [working on] skill development.”
While Teixeira, Zavala, Raif, Caswell, and Lopes are all sophomores who likely won’t return next year, the Portuguese recruits will return for beach volleyball.
“You never know, it’s year to year,” said Abbey. “Even the consistently best teams like Irvine Valley and Orange Coast College are up and down. We’re optimistic.”