The Santa Ynez Pirates move to the Channel League was the top sports story of the year, as reported in the New Year’s Day edition of the Santa Ynez Valley News, but it wasn’t the only big local story of the sports year.
Another major story was the retirement of legendary Santa Ynez High School boys volleyball coach Chip Fenenga and it came in as the No. 2 local sports story of 2018 in a vote of the Santa Ynez Valley News sports team.
Fenenga, 59, didn’t completely retire — he is continuing his 35-year career as a teacher at Santa Ynez High School — teaching Environmental and Spatial Technologies.
But after 29 years on the sidelines, he has given up the reins of Pirates boys volleyball.
When the new coach takes over in the spring, he or she will become just the second boys volleyball coach in Pirates history as Fenenga has run the program for its first 29 years of existence.
Fenenga captured 23 league titles in boys volleyball (and seven more league championships on the girls side).
His Santa Ynez boys teams won seven CIF titles and made the finals of CIF 10 times. The boys program qualified for the CIF playoffs 29 years in a row and set CIF records with 19 consecutive league championships, 208 straight league wins and four straight CIF titles.
Combining boys and girls league titles, Fenenga holds the most league championships by any coach in school history.
“I love the kids. I love the program,” Fenenga said shortly after announcing he was stepping away. “I’m super proud of all the kids who played here. I’ve had unbelievable support from the administration, faculty, parents and especially all the kids.”
In a press release from the school that made Fenenga’s retirement official, the legendary coach said, "It has been a privilege to be boys volleyball coach at Santa Ynez High for the last 29 years. I have had the best seat in the house. Two students started this program interested in establishing a shoestring sport back in 1991. They knew I had played volleyball in 1976 and '77 at San Clemente High and learned the game from the great Yoder family. Everything changed when a tall, talented freshman named Andy Witt entered SYHS."
Witt starred at Santa Ynez High then played at Stanford and for the United States men's national team at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia.
“If we had a Mount Rushmore of Santa Ynez coaches, Chip would be right up there with all our great head coaches — Joanne Reck (girls basketball), Larry Popkin (tennis, football) and Ken Gruendyke (football),” said Santa Ynez High Athletic Director Cris Avery. “You don’t replace Chip. He started the program. He’s the only coach the boys team has ever had. There are kids that would have never played volleyball if it weren’t for Chip. He could be the coach forever if he wanted to. It’s sad to see him go. It’s been a phenomenal run.
“We’ll find a new coach, not to replace Chip but one who, we hope, will start a new streak of their own.”
One of Fenenga's greatest feats at Santa Ynez was off the court, where he's continuously battled cancer since he was first diagnosed with Stage Four cancer 12 years ago.
"I know coaching helped me stay focused on positive things and people," Fenenga said. "But that effort and commitment does gradually drain your energy and health. My health is fine now but battling cancer takes its toll and coaching volleyball makes for some very long days — some long bus rides that I won’t miss. Those bus rides are getting longer and longer.
“There is a fine group of young players coming up including one of the best ever, in Nate Rogers. They deserve a coach committed to 'playoff hockey' and able to consistently give 100 percent. I was just so fortunate to be in this place, with these kids, at this time ... with the keys to the gym."
“He’s an award-winning teacher,” said Avery. “We’re fortunate to be able to keep him in the classroom and he can stay there for as long as he wants to do it.”
“It’s basically a computer science course,” said Fenenga. “I love to teach but this will give me more time to do things with my wife Julene and more time to see our kids, Russ and Sarah.”
Julene Fenenga recently retired after teaching elementary school children for 34 years at the Solvang School.
Russ Fenenga, 24, is a software engineer in San Jose. Sarah Fenenga, 22, is a senior majoring in Geography at UCSB. Both played for their father in high school.
“After all these years of practice, my (right) shoulder is shot. You can only hit the ball so many times,” said Fenenga. “I’m grateful to all the coaches and players that we played against over the years. I’m even more grateful to all of the coaches and players we’ve had over the years here at Santa Ynez High.”