By dan arritt     5/3/2016

Mater Dei begins each match much like other volleyball teams. The players form a tight circle on their end of the court, reach into the middle and stack their right hands like Jenga blocks.

What comes next, however, is an expression that separates the Monarchs from other teams, one that honors their former teammate while drawing the players closer together.

After counting to three, the players shout in unison the first name of Spencer Becker, a popular member of last season’s team who was killed in a car accident 10 months ago, shortly after the end of his junior year. It’s a unique way of honoring their former teammate.

Becker was a unique individual. He not only played volleyball, but flew airplanes, surfed and lit up every room he entered. If ever a high school kid could be considered a Renaissance man, it was Becker, who would have turned 18 on April 25.

Mater Dei got off to a slow start this season, so when his former teammates gathered, some made it known they were tired of being mediocre. Becker would never put up with such a scenario, why should they?

“We lost one of our teammates,” said senior Sterling Miles. “So it was pretty important to us to put it together.”

The Monarchs opened league play with a three-game sweep of Servite, which shared the league title with Mater Dei last season. Then they swept JSerra and two days later did the same to Santa Margarita. Another sweep of Orange Lutheran on April 12 put the Monarchs at 4-0 in league play and they were finally playing like the team they wanted to be.

“We just kind of found our fire,” Miles said after the Orange Lutheran match. “We came together as a team and we’re working like a machine now.”

Reminders of Becker help the Monarchs draw inspiration. Mater Dei keeps an open seat with his No. 7 jersey draped across the back, and the Monarchs have SB7 emblazoned on their game jerseys and warmups. They don’t just holler Becker’s name at the start of each match, but at the beginning of every game and when exiting timeouts.

“We made it a mantra this year to dedicate this season to Spencer Becker,” said coach Pat Connelly. “Day 1, first day of school, it’s about Spencer, that’s what this season’s dedicated for. We owe it to him.”

Becker’s value to the team wasn’t so much in his playing skill, but his ability to motivate his teammates and bring fun and excitement to the experience.

“He was like our inspiration,” Miles said. “Always picked us up when we were doing badly, and telling us we were doing a good job when we were.”

Becker’s popularity was evident the day after he was killed. Miles organized a paddle out in Newport Beach and 300 people showed up with surfboards, while another 200 watched from the pier.

Not long after, Mater Dei assistant coach Sam Morehouse came up with the idea to honor Becker every time the Monarchs broke a huddle, from the varsity team on down.

“It’s been a source of inspiration, to get us through the tough times and tough moments,” Connelly said. “Certainly, the guys have a totally different perspective on life and a totally different perspective on everything in the aftermath of what happened.”