By Brian Stanley
It’s the end of an era for the Pirates. After 28 years of coaching volleyball at Santa Ynez High School, Ronald “Chip” Fenenga will set down the clipboard for the final time as he retires from coaching.
During his time coaching the Pirates, Fenenga created the boys’ volleyball program, winning 23 Los Padres League titles and seven CIF Southern Section championships, and coached the girls’ teams to seven Los Padres League championships.
His connection with volleyball started in high school in Southern California.
“A lot of the background goes back to the beach in San Clemente. It’s the Yoder family, who are a big, big volleyball family. Bob (Yoder) was the coach at USC for a long time,” Fenenga said.
Learning the game from the Yoder family, Fenenga played volleyball at San Clemente High School in 1976 and 1977.
“I can say I sat on the bench at San Clemente High School,” Fenenga said with a laugh.
After he accepted a teaching position at Santa Ynez in 1989, Fenenga began coaching the next year when Kit Myers, the girls’ varsity coach at the time, invited him to coach the girls’ junior varsity team.
“(Kit) had seen me play for a while. That was back when I was better than I am now,” Fenenga said with a chuckle.
After his first season as the girls’ JV coach, Fenenga was approached by a group of students who wanted to start a boys’ program. Fenenga agreed to be the head coach, and the team began playing in the spring of 1992.
“We didn’t really know how we were going to fund it,” Fenenga said. The program ran on a shoe-string budget with the support of the community for the first several years, he said.
“We won a CIF title not being funded by the school,” he added. Eventually, after a series of successful years, the school district began supporting the team financially.
The boys’ team won its first CIF Southern Section Division III championship in 1995, launching a string of nine consecutive Division III finals appearances. The Pirates won seven Southern Section titles during that nine-year span.
“I think one of the things I was able to do here with the kids was to put them in a system that they could be successful but also have fun,” Fenenga said.
The success his players found in volleyball continued beyond high school. Fenenga has seen 18 student-athletes move on to play at the NCAA Division I level, including George Roumain, Chris Peña, and Andy and Larry Witt.
Santa Ynez Athletics Director Cris Avery said that when Fenenga started the boys’ teams, he created opportunities that didn’t exist before for student-athletes to attend Division I school and play college volleyball.
Roumain, who was on the 1995 Southern Section title team, played at Pepperdine University and was named the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) National Player of the Year in 1998 and 1999.
Winning three Southern Section titles with Fenenga in 1996, 1997 and 1999, Peña went on to play at UCLA as well as professionally in Europe. Peña won championships while playing in Spain and France.
“To me he was a salesman, a mentor, a sports psychologist, an orchestra conductor, an unrelenting supportive force, and the pebble at the heart of my snowball,” Peña said.
Andy and Larry Witt’s success also continued after college, as they played AVP Pro Beach Volleyball.
While at the helm of both volleyball programs, Fenenga had the opportunity to coach his son Russ and his daughter Sarah.
“It was a really great opportunity to have both my kids here,” Fenenga said.
Russ was a member of the 2010, 2011 and 2012 boys’ varsity teams and Sarah was on the 2012 and 2013 girls’ varsity teams.
Fenenga guided the boys’ team to a 476-160 record, winning 75 percent of the Pirates’ matchups, and the girls to a 199-86 record (70 percent wins) over 10 seasons.
“The numbers don’t really matter to me at all, it’s the kids. I never set out to win that many games. It was always, ‘Just win the next point’,” Fenenga said.
He recalled when Brett Fillippin, who was a member of the 2014 team that advanced to the second round of the CIF Southern Section Division 4 playoffs, said to him, “You know coach, you play every game like it’s the Soviets vs. USA at Lake Placid.”
“He was exactly right,” Fenenga affirmed. “I just want to play volleyball and win the next point.”
After being diagnosed with stage 4 cancer 12 years ago, focusing on winning that next point in volleyball helped Fenenga as he battled the disease.
“That’s one of the great thing about sports. You forget about all the stuff, the needles, the surgery, the chemotherapy,” Fenenga said. “It just disappears and all you have is the game and the kids and a simple goal. It was positive and very affirming.”
He has been cancer free for six years.
“He went to war with cancer and was one of few people to win that war,” Avery said.
With coaching in the rearview mirror, Fenenga said he is going to take the opportunity to spend more time with his family.
Fenenga’s wife Julene retired from Solvang School District this year after 34 years with the district. His son is a software engineer in San Jose and his daughter is a senior at UCSB, majoring in geography.
His children “are doing great, and I want to be able to take off to see them when I can and not make them the second priority,” he said.
Fenenga will continue teaching at Santa Ynez High School as well as being a continued resource to the athletics department.
“He’s a resource in teaching. He’s a resource to the faculty. He’s a resource to me as a friend and colleague, someone I look up to,” Avery said. “He cares about Santa Ynez athletics.”