Longtime Long Beach State women’s volleyball coach Brian Gimmillaro had many accomplishments during his run at the school, which produced multiple national championships. The one he spoke about most fondly wasn’t the undefeated 1998 national title (the first in NCAA history) or the many Olympians that came out of Long Beach State–it was the national title he won there in 1989.
“We had five African-American starters,” said Gimmillaro when interviewed shortly after his 2017 retirement. “No other championship team previously had more than one. Women of color were really under-represented in our sport.”
Gimmillaro elevated Long Beach State in part because of a willingness and a desire to recruit under-represented athletes. Thirty years after that first barrier-breaking national championship, the spirit of diversity is alive and well in the city of Long Beach and its volleyball scene.
This week, six Long Beach high school volleyball teams will begin the playoffs this week, all of them ranked in the CIF-SS polls. The faces on those teams represent a major change within a sport that was long seen as a lily-white affair.
“I think something that’s really unique about the sport in Long Beach is you have so many different kids from so many backgrounds playing it,” said Poly coach Leland McGrath last season. “It wasn’t like that in Orange County, it wasn’t like that when I was growing up.”
McGrath’s Poly team has African-American, Polynesian, Asian, and Caucasian players, a mix of cultures and backgrounds that’s seen on most of the local high school teams. The coaches in town are a diverse group as well, with McGrath, Lakewood’s Mike Wadley, Wilson’s Carlos Briceno, St. Anthony’s Alicia Lemau’u, Millikan’s Tan Nguyen, and Avalon’s Carlos Martinez .
Poly alum Allanah Cutler said last year that she and her teammates took great pride in representing a diverse city and school with a diverse roster.
“It’s a special thing, there aren’t a lot of schools like that if you look around, especially not in the top division,” she said. Cutler and her sister, Aniah, were both standouts on the school’s volleyball and soccer team. Aniah is a senior this year and is committed to Washington State as a soccer player.
Allanah said that growing up playing soccer and volleyball, she was drawn to volleyball in part because of a more accepting environment, after having had a less-welcoming experience playing youth soccer.
“I was the only black girl on my team and I was reminded of that every single practice and every game,” she said. “It wasn’t a good experience for me.”
Long Beach is ahead of the curve nationally. At the NCAA Division 1 level, 72% of women’s volleyball players on scholarship are Caucasian, along with 83% of head coaches. Every year, players from the city sign college scholarships and add to the diversity at the collegiate ranks, although they’re leaving behind a more diverse atmosphere in high school when they do.
Perhaps it’s not a surprise that Gimmillaro, whose kids could have attended private schools in town or in Orange County, went to Poly instead. His daughter Lauren was the starting libero on the 2010 Poly CIF-SS championship team, the last local team to win a title. Among the other starters on that team were Litara Keil, Bria Russ, and Sa Iosia–Polynesian and African-American players who went on to play in college and get degrees on an athletic scholarship.
For Gimmillaro’s 1989 team at Long Beach State, for the Poly team in 2010, and for all the Long Beach high school teams starting the playoffs this week, their diversity is one of their greatest strengths.