FOOTHILL TITLE UP FOR GRABS; ROYAL IS STILL KING OF MARMONTE; PACIFIC FEATURES TWO-WAY RACE.
A look at the local teams:
Don't count on finding many meaningless matches once league play gets under way up in the Santa Clarita Valley. Four teams, including two with new coaches, have a chance of winning the Foothill League championship this season.
Hart does not lack for challengers as it attempts to defend its league title, but the Indians are strong again despite the loss of four senior starters and the complications of having to adjust to a new coach, former Master's College and Village Christian coach Scott Caulk.
Hart returns all-league middle blocker Gina Casillas, a senior and the team's floor leader, and junior outside hitter Nicole Struka, a threat from anywhere on the court. Caulk is also counting on two sophomore hitters, Stacey Holbrook and Casey Boller (sister of former football star Kyle) for help in ball control and passing. Two seniors, Jenny Burrows and Tara Coe, handle the setting.
``It's going to take a few matches to get our legs under us and learn a new system,'' Caulk said. ``We should be strong at the net with hitting and blocking.''
Saugus and Valencia tied for second in the league last season, and each return three starters.
Setter Jennifer Edwards and middle blocker Sara Foster lead Valencia, and Lauren Beasley provides help in the back row and with serving. The Vikings return seven seniors, including outside hitter Jenny Bader, and also expect contributions from juniors Jaime Csernay on the right side and Leann Curry, a strong digger, in the back row.
``We will have a lot of experience and we'll be strong defensively,'' second-year coach Ray Sanchez said. ``I wish we didn't have any weaknesses, but with the exception of Sara Foster, we are a little thin on offense, we don't have any powerful hitters.''
For Saugus, three seniors - middle blocker Kristi Carebeau, who has improved her passing, and outside hitters Jessica Burns and Renee Griffith - lead on offense, and coach Bobbie Estes has something of an unknown quantity in Courtney Reed, a left-side hitter who recently transferred from Northern California.
Former JV boys coach Dave Gutierrez takes over at Canyon and has three starters back: senior Melissa Prinslow, who Gutierrez calls probably the strongest hitter in the league, senior middle blocker Shayna Posthumus and senior setter Julianna Diaz. At 6-foot-3, junior Jolene Kollough also will see time at middle blocker.
Burbank returns two starters and Burroughs will only carry nine varsity players but returns five, including three rotating setters in seniors Lauren Adams and Amy Yaeger and junior Angela Punaro.
The only constant in the Golden League this summer was change, as three of the six programs took on new coaches, including two of the more successful teams in the recent past.
At Highland, Tom Jones takes over for longtime coach Mike Bird, and although other coaches in the league have to respect the league-champion Bulldogs and their top returnee, outside hitter Brynn Olsson, all have designs on winning the league title themselves.
``You definitely can't count Highland out, and you really can't count anybody out,'' first-year Palmdale coach Jeff LeDuff said. ``In the summer everybody was experimenting with different lineups, but you could tell that it's just going to be a big dogfight.''
Palmdale has an impact player in senior setter Kelly Stein, who as the only returning starter for the Falcons will run the offense.
``She's very much a court leader, our quarterback out there,'' LeDuff said. ``She's one of the best setters in the league, if not the whole Valley area, and she got a lot of positive comments this summer.''
Palmdale has eight juniors and three sophomores, so if the Falcons suffer from inexperience, who will be there to pick up and be the main contender for the league title? Possibly Littlerock, led by senior middle blocker Jessica Ramos, or Antelope Valley, but surprisingly, Lancaster, a 4-10 team last season, will make a serious run at the playoffs.
The Eagles, in only their third year of varsity play, will count on 6-foot junior middle blocker Tiffany Thompson, who coach Bruce Rucker says has improved after a summer of club ball in Santa Clarita. Senior outside hitter Nancy Hernandez is the team leader on the court and junior Laci Fults, last year's backup setter, will take on the starting job this season.
Jason Peplinsky, who coaches the boys' volleyball program at Quartz Hill, takes over the girls' team this season but has only three returners and no starters back. Soccer/softball standout Kellie Cox and Stephanie Wigfall, both juniors, start at outside hitter, and sophomore Randi Cooper will handle the setting.
``Our advantage is that we have very athletic players like Kellie Cox, natural athletes,'' Peplinsky said. ``We did a goal sheet at the end of the summer, and we set making the CIF playoffs as one of our goals.''
It very well could be Royal and everybody else again this year in the Marmonte League, but rival coaches and players aren't ready to concede the title to the Highlanders yet, although Royal returns three players from its CIF Division I-A championship team.
``We'll get 'em this year,'' Westlake setter Lauren Mills said. ``That's our goal.''
The Highlanders will not give up their reign easily. Five-foot-nine senior Michaela Skelly, a nationally recruited setter, and 5-11 senior outside hitter Kelli Lyons pick up the offense in the absence of graduated star Courtney Guerra.
Senior Kari VanFleet enters her third year on varsity and moves from defensive specialist to outside hitter, and senior Amanda Kiser and junior Tanya Grover provide depth at the hitting positions.
``We have a real strong bench,'' said coach Bob Ferguson, who enters his 17th season at Royal. ``The biggest thing will be our ability to adjust against various teams while on the court.''
The Highlanders' biggest challenge will come from Westlake, which returns five starters. The Warriors don't have one dominating player, but have good balance with setters Lauren Mills and Tawny Thorp, senior outside hitters Stacey Lee and Alexis Zarian and junior middle blocker Amanda Tapking. Two sophomores, Brenn Larson and Katie Meledy, provide depth at outside hitter.
Simi Valley returns setter Melody Eckmier and will push the top teams, while Agoura and Newbury Park will try to avoid the cellar.
Thousand Oaks and Moorpark will battle for a playoff spot. Thousand Oaks returns two senior starters in outside hitter Jen Corral and middle hitter Erica Mahan, as well as two juniors in outside hitter Lisa Kennedy and middle blocker Moorpark returns four seniors in setter Briana Rogers, outside hitters Joy McGuire and Christy Daley and defensive specialist Amy Lafata. But the team is young at middle hitter with junior Kristin Nadas and sophomore Taryn Milburn.
Rested, tanned and game-ready, Harvard-Westlake is ready to defend its Mission League title and Division III-A championship.
The Wolverines spent last week in Hawaii, playing in the Iolani Tournament and enjoying the local scene. They competed against Newport Harbor and Santa Margarita, both CIF champions last season, as well as the top Hawaiian teams.
``It was a good experience, and we definitely got the Hawaiian treatment,'' coach Jess Quiroz said.
The Wolverines shouldn't expect such nice treatment in the Mission League this year. Louisville, Flintridge Sacred Heart and Notre Dame all have the talent to push Harvard-Westlake.
Harvard-Westlake returns nine players, including starters Courtney Schultz at middle hitter, Kelly Ayers at middle blocker and Ashley Julian at setter. The Wolverines also have talented youth with two hitters, junior Anna Nesser and sophomore Karolyn Kuchenbecker.
``I'm thinking of putting Courtney outside and putting somebody else in the middle because she is so strong,'' Quiroz said. ``I think the league is going to be exceptionally tough this year.''
Louisville will put a scare into Harvard-Westlake. The Royals finished fifth in the league last season, but return all six starters and feature three seniors (middle blockers Lauryn Leach and Angelina Gerardo and setter Darcy Pollan) and three juniors (outside hitters Collleen Hamlin and Megan O'Connell and opposite hitter Jessica Kirby).
But to topple Harvard-Westlake, Louisville will first have to get past Flintridge Sacred Heart, which brings back five starters but will be hurt by the loss of outside hitter/setter Megan Hosp, who is now at South Carolina.
If the Tologs can fill that offensive hole, watch out. Senior outside hitter Brynne Young is one of the most athletic players in the area, and setter Gloria Borges and middle blocker Sarah Skeehan both return for a second year as starters.
The rest of the league will be just as competitive. Chaminade returns two starters but will struggle to keep up with Notre Dame and Alemany in the battle for the final playoff spot. Notre Dame lost four senior starters but will be strong up front with senior middle blocker Sara Plummer, junior setter Mary Claire Coughlan and senior outside hitter Sarah Braga.
Alemany, led by new coach Peter Piexoto, has six returning players and will be led by seniors Gina Zambetti at setter and Coral Florian at outside hitter.
If summer league is any indication, Crescenta Valley and Arcadia will battle all the way until the end of the regular season to determine who comes out on top.
``We played them two times in the summer, and we split,'' Crescenta Valley coach Jennifer Kunz said. ``The first time neither team had all of our top players, and we lost, and in the second match they didn't have some of their players and we won, so we're expecting a tough battle this season.''
Crescenta Valley, which finished second to Arcadia in the league last season and lost in the second round of the CIF Division I-AA playoffs, returns three key players up front and will be strong at the net.
Senior Mele Misi, a senior right-side hitter, returns for her third season as a varsity starter. Junior Kallie Greatwood moves from the middle to outside hitter, and junior setter Marci English also returns.
Senior outside hitter Erica Lange is one of the team's strongest diggers, and juniors Dancin Gastelum and Megan Morris provide depth and strength at middle blocker and will be key to the team's success.
``I think we will have a good, strong team,'' Kunz said. ``Our two outside hitters can pass the ball well, and we've been working on our passing and setting more than our hitting and blocking.''
Expect Arcadia to field a strong team once again, and the third playoff spot in the Pacific League is not assured to any team. Pasadena, last year's last-place team, returns three starters, as does Muir and Glendale, and Hoover will have to come together quickly to match last year's third-place finish.
Tami Matteson, who coached the girls' junior varsity team at Hoover last season, will be reunited with many of her former players. The Tornadoes lost 11 of their 12 players from last year - nine graduated seniors and three juniors who decided not to play this season.
Senior outside hitter Cori Herbert is the only returning starter and will have to provide leadership for the young team, along with junior middle blocker Januari Chapman and senior setter Evelyn Crowder.
Village Christian went 16-2 last season and fell only two matches shy of winning the CIF Division IV-A championship, losing in the semifinals to Marlborough. Four starters return this season, and the junior-dominated team wants to complete the run this time.
The Crusaders lost middle blocker and team leader Errin Benesh to graduation, but leave the offense in the hands of junior setter Heather Fieldsteel, a first-team All-Alpha League selection last year. Outside hitters Maria Abaca and Jana Fristad also return to a team that has eight juniors on the roster.
``We don't have one star player like we did last year with Errin, but I think we feel better as a team,'' coach Bill Schnobrich said. ``A lot of these girls got experience in big games while they were sophomores last season, so that should help us a lot.''
Village Christian's only two seniors are outside hitter Laura Brandt and defensive specialist Kristin Lashever. Elizabeth Stucki and Robin Pierce, both up from the junior varsity team, will handle the middle as the Crusaders battle Paraclete and L.A. Baptist for the Alpha League title.
``A lot of our girls played club together, which will be a big help,'' Schnobrich said. ``Plus they just seem to enjoy playing with each other. We will be a predominantly outside attacking team, hopefully with good defense and good ball handling.''
At Paraclete, coach Margaret Neill is concerned with her offense after the departure of middle blocker Christine Lambert, who received a scholarship to play for Connecticut.
But the Spirits do return four starters, including junior Jennifer Panek, a second-year starter at setter, senior outside hitter Erika Hernandez and junior middle blocker Jennifer Houseman as they try to build on their second-place finish in league play last season.
``Right now we are trying to be more consistent and do better with our ball placement,'' Neill said. ``We don't have any real strong hitters, but team unity is going to be a big thing for us.''
Grace Brethren finished second in the Heritage League last year but will move up, as defending champion Faith Baptist has lost all six starters. The Lancers, who won the league title in 1997, return senior outside hitter Heidi Zeigler, the league MVP, and junior middle blocker Natalia Durso, a first-team all-league selection.
Campbell Hall, which reached the semifinals of the V-AA playoffs, is strong in the Delphic League this year with the return of senior outside hitter Cicely Carew, a first-team All-CIF Division V pick. Brentwood and Whitney will challenge Campbell Hall for the league title, while Montclair Prep returns only two significant players from last season, sophomore outside hitter Amy Partovich and outside hitter Davida Ross.
Also a contender for a playoff run is La Canada, which lost coach Ted Grissom but returns two team leaders in setter Tracy Neumeier and outside hitter Kelly Gaudino.
In the Frontier League, Charles Gage takes over as coach at Calabasas for David Arone, who accepted an assistant coaching job with the USC women's team. The Coyotes will be challenged for the league title by Malibu, which reached the semifinals in Division IV-A last season and returns second-team All-CIF pick Katie Phelps, a senior outside hitter.
La Reina, which returns its two best players in outside hitter Jennifer Ryan and setter Ashlie Hain, goes for its sixth consecutive Tri-Valley League championship. The Regents reached the second round in Division IV-AA last season, and also return junior outside hitters Lacy Ertel, an all-league selection as a sophomore, and Kristen Ward, the team's only senior.
Coach Don Hyatt also has two unknown factors in junior outside hitter Chelsea Simpson, a transfer from Montclair Prep, and freshman setter Katie Kellogg.
This season can only be better for Vasquez, which finished 0-20 last year. Coach Buck Weber's team returns seniors April Brown at outside hitter and Jenna Deltart at defensive specialist and setter, but lacks the ability to compete with Desert and Rosamond in the High Desert League.
5. Quartz Hill
6. Antelope Valley
3. Thousand Oaks
5. Simi Valley
6. Newbury Park
1. Crescenta Valley
3. Notre Dame
4. Flintridge-Sacred Heart
Already starting strong
Travels to H-W on Sept. 14
Two great setters in Mills, Thorp
4. LA REINA
Ryan and Hain an imposing duo
5. FLINTRIDGE SACRED HEART
Hard hitter in Young
Leaders in improved Foothill League
Return all six starters
New coach, same success?
9. CRESCENTA VALLEY
Will be pushed in league
1. Jennifer Ryan, La Reina, MB - ``J.R.'' can shoot with the best
2. Courtney Schultz, Harvard-Westlake, OH - Only a sophomore
3. Michaela Skelly, Royal, S - Deciding on Div. I offers
4. Brynne Young, Flintridge Sacred Heart, OH - Can put scare in H-W
5. Kelly Ayers, Harvard-Westlake, MD - First-team All-CIF
Strongest hitter: Courtney Schultz, Harvard-Westlake
Best blocker: Tiffany Thompson, Lancaster
Best jumper: Andreja Balach, Royal
Smartest: Erica Mahan, Thousand Oaks
Best leader: Ashley Hain, La Reina
Best digger: Stacey Lee, Westlake
Fastest: Ruth HoKum, Thousand Oaks
Division I-bound: Michaela Skelly, Royal
Quirkiest: Megan Morris, Crescenta Valley. Everything has to be in even numbers, including the numer on her back (4) and the number of pushups the team does in practice.
1. Royal at Harvard-Westlake, Sept. 14
2. Westlake at Royal, Oct. 5
3. Lancaster at Highland, Oct. 12
4. Crescenta Valley at Arcadia, Oct. 15
5. Hart at Saugus, Oct. 28
Season starts: Sept. 9
League play begins: Oct. 5
Nov. 8, 10, 16
Southern Section Playoffs: Nov. 10, 12, 14, 17
City Championship: Nov. 19
Southern Section Championships: Nov. 19-20
3 photos, 7 boxes
PHOTO (1 -- color--) Gina Casillas
Daily News File Photo
(2 -- color --) Kelly Ayers
Daily News File Photo
(3 -- color --) Ashlie Hain
John Lazar/Staff Photographer
BOX: (1) Others (see text)
(2) League Forecasts (see text)
(3) Top 10 (see text)
(4) Top Players (see text)
(5) Superlatives (see text)
(6) Big Games (see text)
(7) Key Dates (see text)