The Santa Ynez Valley is world famous for its great produce, fine wines and beautiful vistas

The Santa Ynez Valley is world famous for its great produce, fine wines and beautiful vistas. The Central Coast climate and conditions seem to grow the best of the best.

Chris Peña is no exception.

A 1999 graduate of Santa Ynez Valley Union High School, Peña flourished as a child, winning a scholarship to University  of California, Los Angeles with the help of the volleyball and personal skills he honed as a child.

If you ask Peña the secrets to his accomplishments, his answer is to center your vision and energy.

“I remember distinctly taking things one day as a time, academically and athletically, and doing the best I could daily,” he said. “I also remember having the feeling that because I did that, everything fell into place.”

Peña also credits his teachers, coaches, parents Ben and Nicole Peña, and his 96-year-old grandmother, Jean Guillemette of Ballard — and being able to ride his bike everywhere, every single day as a child growing up in rural Santa Ynez. His parents owned the Santa Cota Market and delicatessen, and later a florist business.

After playing volleyball and attending UCLA through 2004, where he majored in psychology with a minor in political science and education, Peña played professional volleyball in Puerto Rico for the Puerto Rico National Team  in 2005. From there, he went on to play for the Spanish professional league from 2005-06 in Tervel and from 2006-07 in Corseca. Most recently, Peña played for the Germany professional league, in Wuppertal, from 2007-08.

Although Peña could easily continue playing professionally, he said he now has his sights set on furthering his education, full time, leaving no room for volleyball.

 

 “I knew I wanted to go back to school,” he said. Peña will major in international business marketing and financing and is enrolled at the University Maastricht in Limberg, Netherlands. “I have become very comfortable in Europe.” Peña speaks German, French and Spanish, another bonus of dedication and opportunity.

“I always felt that he would go far,” his father, Ben, said. “He could have a comfortable life playing sports, and I am proud that he went back to school. It was all his decision.”

But as far being a mentor in sports, his father takes no credit. “When he was a child, I would just sit in the corner and watch him, and tell him not to fall and to watch out for the holes.” At 6-foot 6-inches, Chris said that nobody in his family is even close to his height, either.

Peña said it was the teachers in the valley that set him on the right path, starting with the first teacher, Mrs. Peterson, the kindergarten teacher at the Little Red Schoolhouse in Ballard.

But his athletic ability was what caught the eye of his mentor, Santa Ynez High School coach and teacher Chip Fenega, who recruited Peña, turning his interest in tennis to volleyball with a little practical reasoning regarding the opposite sex and embracing the California lifestyle.

“Coach Fenega is the one who picked me up,” Peña said. “Initially, I was playing tennis. He pointed out that if I was on the beach and saw some girls, I should be asking them to shoot some free throws and four-hand volleys, not asking them, ‘Let’s play some doubles!’ And the school had a really solid volleyball program.”

Fenega, who taught science to all the freshmen, remembers his efforts to recruit the young man when Peña was a freshman in 1995.

 

“I was actively recruiting Chris to try something new,” he said. “He joined along with Josh Richmond, and some other kids that came along. Chris had good size and lateral quickness, all the things that make a good athlete. I knew he would be a good volleyball player.

But Fenega takes little credit, also. “Chris was just a gem as a person and as an athlete,” Fenega said. “He was very competitive. All I did is have the keys to the gym; they are the ones who did it. Coach Bob Witt was the genius behind the volleyball development of Chris.”

Peña began playing volleyball when the high school’s program was just taking off. Since those early years, the high school has won more CIF championships than any other boys’ volleyball teams in the state, Fenega said. “He was a huge part of the three California Interscholastic Federation championships won by the school.”

“What was really impressive is that when he went to UCLA, he went because it was UCLA — not because he would be volleyball star,” Fenega said. “He was pretty undersized for an NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) Division 1 men’s volleyball middle blocker. … He had scholarships to go to other schools but he went for academics. He worked his way into a starting line up at UCLA that was truly remarkable. He had to be quicker, smarter and use those tools to be successful at that level.”

Classmate and teammate Marcus Gilmour also remembers Peña having stellar qualities at an early age.

“Chris has always been confident in himself whether on the volleyball court, in the classroom, or in the day to day ups and downs of life — confident in a good way, not an arrogant way,” the former teammate said. “He always trained and practiced with an intense focus and competitive fire that was contagious, with a smile on his face and a positive outlook on life.”

 

Fenega said that today Peña is a mentor to young players whenever he is in the area. “Right now, Jon Bridgeman has accepted a scholarship to play at UCLA, following in Chris’ footsteps,” the coach said. “I think Chris helped many players’ development by giving back.” When he comes home in the summers, he stops by and works with our teams.

“Chris genuinely cares for people and is always willing to lend a hand in whatever capacity is required,” said Gilmour.

Peña advises young athletes to keep things simple and stay in the present to experience similar success.

“Don’t get ahead of yourself,” Peña advises. “It’s good to have a goal. I think the danger with athletes is that they get ahead of themselves and start waiting for red carpets to roll out in front of them.”

After he finishes school, he said his tentative plans were simply to “find a job” and maybe own his own business some day. When asked if that would be in the valley, Peña said, “Home is where the heart is. My parents are here, and I love coming here, that’s for sure.”

Reach Wendy Thompson at wendy@syvournal.com