Girls’ volleyball may not have suffered the worst of all fates when the pandemic sidelined high school sports, but it was certainly among those in the discussion.
Due to the fact the sport is played indoors and early in the school year, volleyball was subject to increased regulations that eventually forced athletic directors to shelve the sport altogether. Several schools hastily formed a makeshift outdoor volleyball league in March, far from its normal August-to-November time slot.
“At one of our league meetings, Monrovia mentioned that they were organizing an outdoor league and we decided to give it a shot,” San Marino High School athletic director David Irie said.
Before you could say “side out,” the Lady Titans were digging, spiking and serving on makeshift courts at SMHS’s softball facility. But there’s one catch: the indoor and outdoor versions of volleyball are vastly different and no school in the area had ever competed outdoors. Even the equipment is substantially different, right down to the volleyballs themselves.
One of the most apparent oddities of the pandemic version of the game was the refusal to engage in physical contact with teammates. Volleyball is famous for its almost constant high-fives after each play and that tradition was immediately verboten, replaced with awkward, abbreviated waves and other hand motions that were meant to serve as a substitute. The custom of regular side-changes was also scrapped to minimize possible contact, a change that has been carried over into the new season.
But all that is (hopefully) in the rear-view mirror and San Marino’s head coach was finally able to assess his players on an indoor court after being hired more than a year ago.
In the meantime, the Titans graduated some of the programs cornerstones — Erin Hill and Leela Anvekar — placing the squad back in the “rebuilding” category.
But Ramirez likes what he sees and San Marino has and early win over San Gabriel and three nice victories at last weekend’s tournament at Pasadena Poly.
“We are on our way,” said Ramirez, with enthusiasm emanating from every syllable. “After all of that outdoor volleyball and the lack of consistent practice times, everything is getting up to par. We are catching up and our goal is to contend for a playoff spot. Two things I am most impressed with are our practice habits and our attitude. The girls are hard workers and execute well.”
Senior outside hitter Conner Sund is a perfect example of both qualities.
“She is a veteran who really knows what she is doing,” Ramirez said of the three-year varsity master. “When you have that much volleyball under your belt, it all comes back to you naturally. Conner is a great kid and a natural leader.”
Sund was named to the all-tournament team last weekend at Poly,
Senior Zoe Yang is vying for playing time at the position called opposite hitter.
“Zoe is working hard to get back and we are working on her footwork and arm swing,” said Ramirez. “But the effort is there and she is totally coachable.”
Senior defensive specialist Cassandra Liong is another hard worker, in the coach’s opinion.
“Cassandra will be a utility player for us,” he said. “Cassandra can play defense and also passes the ball very well. She is also a great server and that comes in hand. Cassandra is there every single day.”
Renee Rodriguez, another senior, is also looking for playing time as a defensive specialist.
“Renee can play libero and the right back defensive position equally well,” Ramirez said.
“She is also an excellent server and super defensive player. Renee is very coachable and is also an excellent teammate.
Senior Heidi Doerges, a co-captain, is the emotional sparkplug of the squad.
“Heidi is one of our better passers and defensive players,” Ramirez exclaimed. “She is also the first one on the team to talk and discuss where we are, which allows us to check our energy level. Heidi is a real key to our program.”
Outside hitter Alyssa Duenas is coming into her own as a senior.
“She is a very strong player,” Ramirez said of the co-captain. “Alyssa plays club volleyball and is very consistent. She works very hard and sets the tone and the standard at practices. She has competed at a very high level and the girls respect her. She hits wit a lot of power.”
Duenas also earned all-tournament honors at Poly’s gathering.
Sophomore Tessa Kackstetter provides height and durability at middle blocker. “Tessa works really hard and is super consistent,” Ramirez said. “She always gives maximum effort, is coachable and executes well. One day, she will be a leader of this program.”
Sophomore opposite hitter Malia Yu has quickly played her way into the lineup. Her brother, Kyle, is a senior at SMHS and — like Malia — plays both basketball and volleyball.
“Malia is super athletic and another upperclassman who is a great athlete. Malia is smart and is able to learn on the fly. Last weekend, we actually had to put her in the middle and she did very well. That is how much trust we have in Malia.”
Senior right-side hitter Gabriela Salim will be depended upon to provide offensive punch.
“Gabriela hits really well and is also super-coachable,” Ramirez said. “She meshes well with the other seniors, too.”
Senior Elaina Lee was a late addition to the roster but is catching up with aplomb.
“Elaina is a fine utility player who can also set the ball,” Ramirez explained. “Her strong points are passing and defense. Elaina rounds out our roster very well and she is really committed to the team.”
Senior middle blocker Jocelyn Tang adds depth and experience at the net.
“Jocelyn is getting as lot of work for us,” Ramirez said. “She is very quiet and very coachable.”
Freshman Ella Jackson has made quite an impact on the program in a short time.
“We saw a great opportunity to get Ella on the court and she has responded well,” Ramirez said. “We are having her play outside hitter and she is learning the game very well. She is another player who will be the future of this program. When you teach something new to Ella, it sticks.”
Senior Marlene Ketelaar has the all-important role as setter locked up.
“Marlene has great hands and is super coachable,” said Ramirez. “She knows how to move the ball around and is also working on incorporating her dumps and hitting. Marlene has advanced her volleyball IQ and is doing well. She is also a good leader.”
Junior middle blocker Amanda Redding is one of the more dominating offensive threats in the San Gabriel Valley.
“We are looking to transition Amanda to either outside or opposite but we couldn’t ask for anything more,” Ramirez said. “She is tall and explosive and can put the ball down. She is one of the top athletes in our program.”
Meanwhile, freshman Chloe Wong is showing rapid improvement.
“Chloe is an excellent athlete and we felt we needed to give her a chance to see what the varsity level is like,” Ramirez said. “She has good hands and distributes the ball well. Chloe is coming along very well; she is a ‘gym rat’ and works very hard.”
That combination of hard work and experience will be key if the Lady Titans hope to reach their goals for the 2021 campaign.
“I think La Cañada and South Pasadena will be very strong and it will be between us, Monrovia and Temple City for the third playoff spot,” Ramirez said. “But we are doing very well.”
San Marino had a taste of the next level in the game against Mayfield of Pasadena and also faced a a tough task at the Poly tournament against Phoenix Country Day.
“We are starting to realize that there is a lot of really good competition out there,” Ramirez said. “Our girls are well aware of that. There are athletes at some of these schools who commit to playing volleyball 12 months out of the year. We have had a lot of obstacles before us but I admire the attitude these young ladies have and their exceptional work ethic. With those two factors working in our favor, the sky is the limit.”