SIXTH SENSE; LA REINA RELIES ON AN UNCANNY RAPPORT.
In football, a running back makes quick friends with his offensive linemen, the big guys up front who clear his path to success.
In baseball, pitcher and catcher must be together mentally, and offense in basketball requires the guard and center anticipating each other's actions.
So it goes for Jennifer Ryan, a junior middle blocker for the La Reina girls' volleyball team, who has spent the past five summers playing club volleyball with her setter, junior Ashlie Hain.
The on-court communication between the duo is one reason Ryan is considered one of the top returning players in the area this fall, and why the Regents are a team on the rise in Division IV-AA.
``Right now I'm very used to the way she sets, and that helps us quite a bit on the court,'' Ryan said. ``She knows where I like my sets, and we have real good communication. Usually we don't even have to talk, we know what the other is thinking and doing.
``We really are like a team. We have the same intensity level, and we've both been going hard this summer. During the club season, we were so united that we want to carry that over to the high school season.''
La Reina has won five consecutive Tri-Valley League championships, and coach Don Hyatt said this year's success hinges largely on Ryan's ability to lead a young team. The Regents have only one senior starter, but seven of the team's 10 players have some varsity experience.
``Jennifer has become a leader,'' Hyatt said. ``Most of it comes from her physical ability, because she stands out in practice. She's not the one who will go up and get in a player's face, but she does it by going nonstop in practice and by staying extremely focused.
``At times she is so focused that it can be a little intimidating for the other girls, especially when we work out with the JV team. But the girls are starting to look to her. The other day we did a concentration drill in practice, and Jennifer was the first one they looked to.''
Ryan became a standout on the court with an exceptional sophomore season. Ryan was one of only three sophomores among 62 players on the All-CIF first teams. Hyatt is expecting more.
``During the summer I was helping the team work out on the court,'' Hyatt said. ``Now, I have quite a bit of experience playing volleyball, but I was on the other end of her hits, and she almost knocked me over a couple times.
``Her confidence is growing all the time, and her expectations of herself are getting higher. Last year I think she was kind of shocked at her own success, but this year I've already told her that she's probably going to be 50 percent of our offense, and she will get the ball on all the crucial points. Nobody is going to stop her, unless she stops herself.''
So the bad news for opponents is that Ryan has improved. The worst news is that Ryan admits, and her coach agrees, that they are just beginning to tap her potential.
``I'd say we're probably seeing about 70 percent of what she can be,'' Hyatt said.
Ryan spent the summer working on her footwork and quickness, and using virtual reality-type training to improve her vertical jump. Also, her work with Hain on their club team, which won the 16-and-under division at the prestigious Davis Volleyball Festival, has prepared her for a high level of competition.
``The thing I've probably improved most is my quickness in the back row,'' Ryan said. ``I can get to a few more balls this season, and I'm reading the ball a lot better. I just think my overall knowledge of the game is better.''
The pressure of expectations seems to roll off Ryan quite easily, and she openly discusses what she would like to accomplish this season.
``We're hoping to win league and go all the way and win a CIF title,'' Ryan said. ``We've never passed the quarterfinals, but people expect a lot from us. La Reina definitely has a name to uphold.
``I feel a little pressure personally, but not much. Volleyball is the ultimate team sport, because one player can't do everything. In order to hit you have to have a good set, and to have a good set you have to have a good pass.''
The Regents appear to have the setting and hitting part down to near-perfection, and in part because of her work in the offseason, Ryan is ready to shine.
``I can put Ashlie in there with any middle blocker and they will do fine, but with Jennifer it's something special,'' Hyatt said. ``Jennifer is a very emotional player, but if you're going to be a leader you have to eliminate the peaks and valleys. That's going to be key, to keep our emotions in check and don't have highs or lows, but it's hard to see Jennifer not having any highs - that's just the kind of player she is.''
Player: Jennifer Ryan
Team: La Reina volleyball
Position: Middle blocker
Highlights: As a sophomore last season, led the Regents to their fifth consecutive Tri-Valley League championship and the quarterfinals of the CIF Division IV-AA playoffs. . . . Named MVP of Tri-Valley League and was first-team All-CIF in Division IV. . . . Led the Regents with 303 kills, 110 digs, 64 aces and 186 service points last season. . . . Played club volleyball with Malibu-based Sport Shack with La Reina teammate Ashlie Hain.
Box, 3 photos
PHOTO (1 -- color -- cover) La Reina;s Jennifer Ryan is the best on the block as the '99 girls' volleyball season kicks off
Eric Grigorian/Special to the Daily News
(2) La Reina middle blocker Jennifer Ryan attributes her success to her on-court rapport with setter Ashley Hain.
Eric Grigorian/Special to the Daily News
(3) no caption (Jennifer Ryan)
BOX: Ryan File (see text)