Legendary athlete spikes new life into volleyball program

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New SWC volleyball coach and South Bay legend Jennifer Saleaumua Taeatafa brings fresh energy to a struggle program. Photo by Adriana Molina.

New SWC volleyball coach and South Bay legend Jennifer Saleaumua Taeatafa brings fresh energy to a struggle program. Photo by Adriana Molina.

Mt. San Jacinto’s volleyball coach blundered when he ordered the post-match meal after his team went up 2-0 over Southwestern College. As it turned out, it was the Lady Jags who were hungry.

Jennifer Saleaumua Taeatafa, the fiery new SWC coach, took offense when her counterpart assumed the match would soon be over.

Her squad got the message and won the next game 15-13. During the fourth game Mt. SAC’s food arrived as the Lady Jags won again. Game five spoiled Mt. SAC’s appetite as the Lady Jags won 15-9 and took the match, 3-2.

In the past the team might have rolled over and accepted the loss, said middle blocker Katie Fontana. That will not happen under San Diego County volleyball legend Taeatafa, who prepped at Bonita Vista High School and was the 2000 CIF Player of the Year

Taeatafa does not allow negative or defeatist attitudes in the gym, and she does not accept losing without a fight — a helluva fight.

Fontana said Taeatafa has blown up the previous SWC volleyball culture and started over.

“She sees potential in us,” Fontana said. “She is like our mom and wants to see us grow.”

Taeatafa is a tough mother, but the results are startling. She took over a volleyball team that was winless until the last game of the 2014 season. This year it already has six wins and is hungry for more.

“I only have two years of coaching experience, but I’ve been playing my whole life,” Taeatafa said. “I’m all for development and proving people wrong. I never back down from a challenge.”

Fontana said the coaching change was an adjustment, but the team has responded well.

“She was very strict at first, but once we got on the same page and warmed up to her, things began to run more smoothly,” Fontana said.

Taeatafa has a history of finding success on the volleyball court since she started at age 12. She learned from her aunt and uncle, Dan Saleaumua, an All Pro defensive lineman for the Kansas City Chiefs. A South Bay native, she attended Bonita Vista High School and during the off-season played for Coast North Volleyball Club. In her senior year at BVHS she led her team to an undefeated season, a CIF title, the California State Championship and the National Championship.

She accepted a full scholarship to the University of Nebraska, started all four years and was a two-time All-American. After college she played professional volleyball in Puerto Rico for two years.

ESPN named her San Diego County’s greatest ever women’s volleyball player. The San Diego Union-Tribune named her one of the Top 50 Greatest San Diego County High School Athletes of All Time, a list that includes Ted Williams, Bill Walton, Marcus Allen, Reggie Bush, Gail Devers, Junior Seau, Eric Chavez, Phil Mickelson, Monique Henderson and other luminaries.

Taetafa said she made a concerted effort to shake things up at SWC and change the culture of the volleyball program. She said her two points of emphasis were teaching a serious practice structure and helping players realize that once they enter the gym it is all business.

Freshman Claudia Gagliano said Taeatafa is directly related to the success of the team.

“Her knowledge of the game, and the way she talks to us, is what makes us want to play our best,” she said.

Volleyball’s unexpected Renaissance has some already wondering about a playoff run. Taeatafa said she would consider the season a success if her players develop and play better at the end. She is more focused, she said, on creating a strong foundation for the program and long-term success.

Taeatafa said she wants to elevate the SWC women’s volleyball to a respected program in the community like she did at BVHS. She has already won the respect of a coach at Mt. SAC.

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