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2021 GIRLS VOLLEYBALL PREVIEW: Many unanswered questions await teams as girls volleyball returns to action

 

August 26, 2021

By Loren Kopff • @LorenKopff on Twitter

First came the pandemic last March, then a revised CIF-Southern Section athletic calendar, which came out four months later with girls volleyball slated to begin in late December. That never materialized as cases continued to rise. The cancellation of girls volleyball put a strain on everyone involved in the sport and left teams wondering what could have been. Now, teams will have an opportunity to redeem themselves, albeit with virtually new looks as the only ones on varsity teams this season were either freshmen or sophomores the last time there was action on the court if they were on varsity. Here’s a brief look at what to expect from the area teams in 2021. None of the area teams are on the CIF-SS preseason watch list.

ARTESIA LADY PIONEERS

7-19 overall in 2019, 2-8 in the 605 League, fifth place

21-94 overall last five seasons

Head coach: Tommy Dube (7-19 record at Artesia)

Last time made the playoffs: 2010

Division 7

Head coach Tommy Dube was looking for bigger and better things in his second season with the Lady Pioneers knowing he would have a strong senior class returning for the 2020 season. Now, Artesia High will have to regroup if it plans to post the program’s first winning season in over two decades. Over the past 12 months, Dube said he has been focused on keeping the girls that wanted to play high school volleyball, get into playing club volleyball. Some of the Artesia players attended different clinics and leagues to keep them involved in the sport, Dube said.

The seven wins posted in 2019 were the most since 2015 when that team went 7-17 and only once in the 2000s has the program posted a double-digit win season.

“It was very disappointing for my girls, but every other team did not get to have a senior season either,” Dube said of the lost season. “It’s energizing that Artesia gets to start almost from fresh once again.”

With the Lady Pioneers graduating a lot of seniors from the 2019 team, the lone returning player for this season would have been junior middle blocker Simone Johnson. However, she transferred, which leaves Artesia with all varsity rookies. Dube lists senior middle blocker Melissa Lopez and senior setter Kira Magdaleno as the ones to take the leadership roles this season. He added that the remainder of the team is ‘very green and not much experience’.

As far as expectations, knowing that the rest of the 605 League will be in similar situations, Dube said he is striving for the best, get better every game and be in the hunt for a playoff berth.

CERRITOS LADY DONS

25-6 overall in 2019, 10-0 in the 605 League, first place, lost to La Serna High in five sets in the Division 4 second round playoffs

96-35 overall last five seasons

Head coach: David Cuthbert (119-59 record at Cerritos)

Last time missed the playoffs: 2002

Division 4

Head coach David Cuthbert has been at Cerritos High since 2013 and during his time there, the Lady Dons have been tough to beat, especially in the 605 League where they have yet to lose a match in 20 tries. Cerritos was already locked and loaded with an experienced crew coming back and the prospects of making a deeper run in the playoffs were shot down.

“We were disappointed not to be able to compete,” Cuthbert said. “Our seniors last year missed an opportunity to add to our program’s history and that is regretful. It was challenging dealing with the uncertainty and constant rescheduling. Ultimately, we were disappointed, but we understood the decision and on a personal note, I’m glad that participating in volleyball didn’t contribute to any health issues to our players or their families.”

When the lockdown began at the beginning of the pandemic, the team moved online for the fall and winter months. The team conducted daily workouts along with watching and critiquing volleyball videos.

Cerritos will return three players from the 2019 team-senior middle blocker Halyne Buycks, senior outside hitter Mikayla Guerrero and senior setter/opposite hitter Leanna Tolentino. Cuthbert says that Tolentino will be a driving force for the Lady Dons this season and as a ‘really talented’ player, could play multiple positions. He added that she sets a high standard for the program and will be looked at to lead the offense as a setter.

As for Guerrero, whom Cuthbert says has grown a lot in the past year and a half despite the missed season, a lot will be expected from her both on and off the court. And even though the Lady Dons will have 13 players without any varsity experience, Cuthbert said he has been impressed with all of them, especially junior middle blocker Somto Eze, who has made the big jump from the frosh/soph team to varsity, junior outside hitter Jordynn Hollins, whom he says has improved a lot and is ready to play a significant role and sophomore setters Chloe Cruz and Leila Tolentino, the latter who can also play libero, opposite hitter and outside hitter.

In terms of expectations, Cuthbert wants his team to get better individually and collectively.

“Improvement in performance drives all more measurable definitions of success, so it will always come first for us,” he added. “We want to maintain our record in the 605 League and I believe we will be competitive and then to be playing our best volleyball as we enter CIF playoffs.

“Lastly, with so many new faces, we want to maintain the culture of our program in terms of how we play the game, how we come together and who we are as people,” Cuthbert continued. “It is important for us to produce good teams on the court and good individuals outside of the gym as well.”

GAHR LADY GLADIATORS

18-5 overall in 2019, 10-0 in the San Gabriel Valley League, first place, lost to Valley Christian High in three sets in the Division 4 first round playoffs

77-44 overall last five seasons

Head coach: Charity Dennis (first season at Gahr)

Last time missed the playoffs: 2008

Division 4

For the third time in as many seasons played, Gahr High will have a new head coach as longtime junior varsity coach Chasity Dennis replaces Gerryn Claxton as the one in charge of the Lady Gladiators. Dennis had been with the junior varsity squad the past five seasons before moving up.

“A lot of good examples to follow between [former head coaches] Brian [Gimmillaro], Sonny [Okomoto] and Iris [Najera],” Dennis said with a gleam in her eyes. “They kind of set the tone for the program, so I’m happy to be able to continue that trend. We have solid kids with good work ethics and I’m excited to see what they do this season.”

Gahr had consecutive 18-win seasons in 2018 and 2019 and has missed the playoffs just once since at least 1998. However, the program has had 11 winning seasons in the past 22 seasons with four San Gabriel Valley League title, 10 second place finishes and eight third place finishes.

Dennis inherits a team with three players left over from the 2019 team-senior outside hitters Riley Abundo and Monse Rodriguez Vega and senior middle blocker Kiara Davis. But she coached a lot of the varsity newcomers two seasons ago.

“It is not new, so it should not be a surprise for a lot of them,” Dennis said. “We have a lot of new leadership as well come in and help out, which is an adjustment period for them. But they’re an awesome group.

“All three of them are great individuals and leaders,” she later said of the varsity returners. “They’re easy to follow out there on the court, so the kids naturally surround the, as leaders. They’ve stepped up in big ways.”

Dennis says that Rodriguez Vega brings experience to the team, especially from the club level, which is easy for kids to get behind. Abundo brings energy out on the court which the players respect and gets in the players’ faces, which they respond to and Davis also brings the energy and keeps players accountable while picking them up, keeps them energetic and keeps them in the game.

Even though there was no season in 2020 and Dennis had to wait until this past Tuesday to coach her first varsity match, she said the players were able to adapt to a lot of things during the extended time off but at the same time were ready to go if there was a season. They were practicing outside, stayed in shape in the weight room outside and when they were able to get into the gym, they were ready to go.

According to Dennis, the top varsity newcomers are sophomore setter Cassie Zoellers, who is ‘just an athletic kid all around’ and freshmen middle blocker Shayla Cotright, who has a lot to learn but the progress she has made in the past couple of months is one to keep an eye on. Junior opposite hitter Simone Johnson is a transfer from Artesia.

Dennis expects the Lady Gladiators to do the best of what they are capable of doing, which is winning the SGVL. She added that she is looking forward to the matches against league rivals Downey High and Warren High.

JOHN GLENN LADY EAGLES

11-12 overall in 2019, 5-5 in the 605 League, tied for third place

32-82 overall last five seasons

Head coach: Daniel Reyes (11-12 record at John Glenn)

Last time made the playoffs: 2009

Division 6

Head coach Daniel Reyes felt he had a team worthy of going to playoffs in 2019, but the Lady Eagles lost the third place tiebreaker and had to wait another season to end the program’s 10-year playoff drought. Reyes said not having a 2020 season was “very tough” on not just the seniors, but it also hurt a lot of the underclassmen as well.

“I feel that losing a year of game experiences and training can hurt athletes tremendously,” he said. “For the past 12 months, numbers have been very low due to the pandemic and parents worried about allowing their kids to be out. For the most part, all we’ve been able to do was condition outdoors. We held tryouts [the week of Aug. 9], so the majority of the girls have just recently started playing volleyball.”

John Glenn High has only one returning player from the 2019 team-junior outside hitter Kaylani Moncada, and Reyes says she will definitely be pushed in all aspects of her game, but mostly mentally. He has made it clear to her that he is relying heavily on her to be the leader for the Lady Eagles; that veteran presence that Glenn is going to need throughout the season.

Glenn will field a team of 16 and of the varsity newcomers, Reyes tabs senior middle blocker Gabriela Ortega, senior outside hitter Geovanna Ramos and senior libero Joey Abugotal as the ones who will have a major impact on the team this season. In fact, those three and Moncada are the only ones who have experience being in Glenn’s program as Reyes has six sophomores and two freshmen. The remainder of the team is new to the program.

“I’m expecting the 2021 season to be a complete rebuilding year,” Reyes said. “With only Kaylani being a varsity returner, and the three others returning from the program in general, there will be a lot of bumps and bruises this season. We do have a group of girls who are dedicated and want to improve. But the late start will be a very big obstacle for us.”

NORWALK LADY LANCERS

8-22 overall in 2019, 2-7 in the Suburban League, fourth place

58-67 overall last five seasons

Head coach: Paola Nava (first season at Norwalk)

Last time made the playoffs: 2017

Division 7

Norwalk High hasn’t had a winning season since 2017, which was the last time it reached the playoffs and first-year head coach Paola Nava hopes to change that trend. Nava, a former Lady Lancer who graduated from Norwalk in 2017, replaces Eric Lorn as head coach and like other first-year head coaches, has had to wait his or her time to coach a match as the 2020 season was cancelled. Nana said becoming the school’s new head coach has had her excited for a while and although there was no 2020 season, it is still a learning experience for her.

“I am still very much learning on how to become a better coach, but the students keep me on my toes every day,” the former lower level coach of two years said. “I know it is going to be different from the previous two years but I will do whatever it takes to better prepare myself. I am excited for what is to come this season and am looking forward to seeing these girls play.”

Nava said the past 12 months have been a rollercoaster of emotions for herself and the girls, but they have always been waiting and ready to go once the green light was given to resume action inside the gymnasium.

The Lady Lancers return three players from the 2019 team-senior middle blocker/opposite hitter Delylah Faamatau, senior outside hitter Denise Cortez and senior libero Stacey Valentin and Nava believes they are ready to be the leaders this season. Of the top varsity rookies, Nava says sophomore setter Alyssa (A.J.) Dorado is one to keep an eye on.

“A.J. has been playing volleyball for quite some time now and I do see her being a potential leader in the upcoming seasons,” Nava said. “A.J. may not look like it, but she has the power to change this team in a positive way. I am looking forward to seeing the things she can do this season.”

Nava expects her team to always give their full effort and while she says it isn’t about winning, in her eyes, if the girls go out there and give it their all, that is what she cares about. She adds that she truly sees the potential in her players winning the Suburban League this season, something the program has not done since 2013.

“If they just continue to work hard and play the game they know how to play, it can fall in their favor,” Nava said. “All they need to do now is believe in themselves the way that I believe in them.”

VALLEY CHRISTIAN LADY DEFENDERS

25-9 overall in 2019, 6-2 in the Olympic League, second place, defeated Norco High in four sets in Division 4 championship

97-55 overall last five seasons

Head coach: Jeff Ornee (65-30 record at Valley Christian)

Last time missed the playoffs: 2009

Division 3

One can only wonder what could have been for Valley Christian High had there been a 2020 season. The Lady Defenders were hoping to defend their CIF-SS championship of 2019 and would have returned middle blocker Dakota Quinlan, the 2019 Division 4 Player of the Year and outside hitters Ashlyn Couch, Rachel Gonzales and Ari Schmidt, setters Rachel Lim and Emma Taylor and libero Francie Leffler.

Now, only Leffler and Schmidt remain as the lone players with varsity experience for reigning Division 4 Coach of the Year Jeff Ornee. The last time the Lady Defenders played a significant match that counted was Nov. 9, 2019 and now, V.C. has moved up to Division 3.

“It was definitely a blow when we found out there would not be an official girls volleyball season/playoffs last season,” Ornee said. “I had an incredible core of players coming back for one more run and we were very disappointed to not get a chance to defend our title in 2020. But in hindsight, it made our CIF championship back in 2019 that much sweeter knowing we wouldn’t get an opportunity again the next year.”

Ornee said the past 12 months have been very beneficial from a development standpoint as the team was able to practice and run clinics periodically throughout the offseason and now, the Lady Defenders have a ton of consistency in the coaching staff, which he says makes a difference.

Even with Leffler and Schmidt as the only ones with varsity experience, Ornee still calls them the “underclassmen” as there are five seniors and five other juniors on the team. With that said, he adds that their experience will mean a lot to a group with a lot of new faces.

“Francie’s effort is unmatched, and I look to her to be a major piece and the heart of our defense,” Ornee said. “Ari’s versatility and consistency on the offensive end will be huge as we graduated three pin hitters and middle blocker and league MVP Dakota Quinlan last year.”

In addition to 10 new players to the team, the other biggest change for V.C. is the move up to Division 3. While Ornee said it was expected, he believes the team will take on the challenge of higher competition as the Lady Defenders approach the postseason.

“We are used to getting pushed throughout our season in the Molten Classic tournament as well as playing some great, tough competition in the preseason and Olympic League,” he said. “It will be interesting to see where teams like Village Christian and Whittier Christian are at after a long hiatus. But I’m excited for the opportunities and challenges that await us this season.

WHITNEY LADY WILDCATS

18-8 overall in 2019, 8-2 in the 605 League, second place, lost to Valley View High in three sets in the Division 6 second round playoffs

45-63 overall last five seasons

Head coach: Marlene Jollensten (first season at Whitney)

Last time missed the playoffs: 2016

Division 6

Whitney High did not provide any information on this season’s team.

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