If there was one thing that defined the Kenai Central volleyball team this season, it was how fast the team bonded.
The Kardinals lost four seniors from their 2002 squad. Also, Kenai had to integrate two transfers and a new coach into this year's team.
All the new pieces did not slow the team down. Kenai won the Region III Southern Division before coming up short of qualifying for state at the Region III tournament.
While every piece of the puzzle had to fit for the Kardinals to bond, one of the biggest pieces of that puzzle was senior Ali deMello.
During a match, when the team lost a few straight points, deMello, the team's setter, would bring the Kardinals together in a group for some quick words. Invariably, Kenai's play would pick up after the meeting.
"She really runs this team very well," Kenai Central coach Jason Diorec said after the Kardinals had gotten off to a 3-0 start in September. "She just has this presence about her.
"When she yells at somebody, they won't get mad at her. They'll just try and play better."
Ali's father, Richard deMello, said the team took kindly to his daughter's leadership because many of them already knew each other and were comfortable with each other.
"Part of it is she got really close with the team," Richard said. "This past summer, some of them worked at a cannery together.
"They played volleyball, hung out and built a lot of team spirit."
This was the first year deMello took such a big role in leading the team. She didn't earn a starting spot on Kenai's varsity until her junior year. That team had four seniors, so deMello didn't have to take an active leadership role.
"Last year, the seniors and I were really close friends," deMello said. "We played together so much that we all knew what each other's strengths and weaknesses were.
"It really wasn't my place to say anything."
This year, deMello and Heather McIntyre were the only seniors on the team, giving deMello a chance to do more leading.
"I saw the chance to be a leader this year," deMello said. "I noticed that when I would say things, the girls responded positively to it, so I became more vocal."
There are a number of things that qualified deMello for the leadership role.
For starters, deMello has amassed volleyball knowledge and skill. She started playing the sport in sixth grade. Since then, she has played in school and, except for two years, has played a club season, which runs from December to April. In the summer, deMello also plays sand ball.
Tiare Hansen, deMello's sister and a 1999 Kenai Central graduate, got deMello interested in volleyball.
"When my sister showed an interest in junior high, I went and helped teach her secrets that most kids her age didn't know," Hansen said.
Naturally, deMello and Hansen became similar players and played the same setter position. Hansen does note one difference, however.
"She's been called, 'The General,'" said Hansen, who was an assistant coach for the Kardinals this year. "What she says, goes. Just do what she says, no questions asked.
"I'm not so much a general like she is."
Jeri deMello, Ali's mother, said those leadership abilities came naturally.
"I think she's always been a leader," Jeri said. "She would always make sure the girls all were in the places they were supposed to be in. Instead of making the players seem like they were wrong, instead she would do it by encouraging them."
The final element that made deMello a good leader is self-confidence.
"When she was little, she felt inadequate and lacked self-confidence," Richard said. "Last year, when she was playing, she really seemed to blossom."
If at all possible, deMello would like to keep playing volleyball in college. Angelica Carreon, a 2003 graduate of Kenai Central, plays volleyball at Southwestern Oregon and started as a freshman. Carreon has told the coach about deMello, and the Kenai duo is hoping to reunite.
In school, deMello carries at 2.7 grade point average. She said in college she would like to study cosmetology or biotechnology.
"She's worked really hard, especially at volleyball," Richard said. "She'll be fine if she carries that same kind of work and determination over into whatever she chooses to do."
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