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Foothill League girls volleyball preview: Cents take aim at Vikes

Formidable Saugus plans to end Valencia’s run

Posted: September 27, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: September 27, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Saugus senior Jaclyn Clark will lead the Centurions as they try to unseat Valencia atop the league standings. Saugus senior Jaclyn Clark will lead the Centurions as they try to unseat Valencia atop the league standings.
Saugus senior Jaclyn Clark will lead the Centurions as they try to unseat Valencia atop the league standings.
West Ranch senior middle blocker Angel Rutledge will try to slow down some of the Foothill League’s potent offenses. West Ranch senior middle blocker Angel Rutledge will try to slow down some of the Foothill League’s potent offenses.
West Ranch senior middle blocker Angel Rutledge will try to slow down some of the Foothill League’s potent offenses.

There’s a certain list of attributes that makes up any successful team.

Talent is on the list, but that’s all relative.

Experience is another thing, but that changes from year to year.

In terms of mental fortitude, though, Valencia girls volleyball has been second to none in the Foothill League for nearly a decade.

For that reason, it will take a major breakthrough for any team to end Valencia’s streak of nine straight league championships.

“This year is a little bit different,” said Saugus head coach Zach Ambrose. “I have a lot of confidence. I always like to downplay us a little bit and I never think we’re the best team, but this year we’re playing at a pretty high level.”

The problem is, so is Valencia. The Vikings are ranked fifth in the latest CIF-Southern Section Division IA poll, ahead of Saugus at No. 8.

The teams not only have a chance to win league, but they could make a significant push in the playoffs.

But that’s thinking way too far ahead.

With league play beginning today, there are four other Foothill teams that will have something to say about the two frontrunners.

Valencia Vikings

At this time last year, injuries were piling up and Valencia was forced to call up a couple of players from junior varsity just to fill the roster.

Three sophomores were seeing significant varsity playing time, casting doubts about the Vikings’ ability to win league and keep the streak alive.

Now, those sophomores have another year of experience, and they’re the foundation of a scorching start to the season.

“You could say we’re deceivingly young,” said head coach Ray Sanchez. “We’re not as young as we look and we’re more experienced than we look.”

That experience has paid off already, as the Vikings (8-3) have collected wins over Notre Dame Academy of Los Angeles (ranked seventh in Division IA) and Division IAA power Lakewood.

Though Valencia has just three seniors, the team is loaded with talented players at just about every position.

“My biggest problem this year is trying to figure out where to put the right combination of players, and that’s a great problem to have,” Sanchez said.

A few players have shifted around to maintain balance and accommodate the new two-setter system being used.

That means junior Delaney Knudsen will help at setter and supplement fellow junior and third-year varsity setter Carly Carapella.

Senior Sydney Striff is also taking on a different role, moving from her spot as an opposite hitter last year to middle blocker this season.

“From an offensive point of view, we don’t have a go-to big gun,” Sanchez said. “We’re pretty well-balanced. We distribute the ball pretty well. That’s our strength.”

Saugus Centurions

No team in the league comes close to bringing back the amount of talent that Saugus does.

Only one starter from last year graduated, and Saugus returns a wealth of talent.

And yet, the Centurions’ head coach wouldn’t dare predict his team to knock off the nine-time defending Foothill champions.

“We definitely have the chance to challenge them this year,” Ambrose said. “But I think in the end, they usually find a way to win.”

It isn’t that he doubts his team’s ability, especially after finishing second in league last year. Last week, Saugus (17-2) beat Los Osos of Rancho Cucamonga, the same team that eliminated the Centurions in the second round of the CIF-SS Div. IA playoffs last season.

That’s in addition to an impressive showing in the San Luis Obispo Tournament a week earlier, where multiple higher-division teams competed.

“We are definitely starting to peak and play our best volleyball right now,” Ambrose said. “I think in years past, we maybe peaked a little early.”

Saugus’ deadly hitting combination includes fourth-year varsity player Jaclyn Clark and third-year player Sarah Blomgren. They’ll be assisted by another third-year player in setter Ashley Guthrie.

The three seniors won’t be easy to stop, nor will the Centurions as a whole.

West Ranch Wildcats

What the Wildcats may lack in experience, they certainly make up for in ability.

Two sophomores on the team, Haley Lind and Alexis Clewis, spent the summer playing for various USA Volleyball Select teams.

Now they’re starters for West Ranch.

But the Wildcats (3-10) have struggled with a difficult non-league schedule so far, and will head into league play quietly as a result.

“We haven’t played any easy teams so far,” said head coach Nate Sparks. “I think we already sort of are flying under the radar.”

With key losses on both the offensive and defensive ends, West Ranch, which finished third in the Foothill League in 2010, is trying to find the right combination of mostly sophomores and juniors to fill the gaps.

At this point in the season, it’s still a learning process.

“Every team we’ve played this year and lost to, we’ve been ahead in most of those games, and for some reason we haven’t been able to finish it out,” Sparks said.

A major emphasis for the Wildcats has been on blocking in order to counter the powerful offensive attacks of Valencia and Saugus.

One of the team’s four seniors, Angel Rutledge, leads the combination of middle blockers.

Sparks said she’s arguably the best blocker in the league.

She may have to be to keep the Foothill’s top teams under control.

Hart Indians

Even head coach Mary Keen admits that Hart is a tough team to pinpoint.

The Indians have an even split of six seniors and six juniors to go along with one freshman starter.

Plenty of talented players return, yet a few also graduated.

On top of that, it’s been an up-and-down non-league season for Hart (5-7).

“There’s some games where we look like we’ve been playing together for four or five years ...” Keen said. “And then there’s some games where you look at it and we look like we’ve never played together.”

Fortunately, Hart is seeing more of the good than the bad as it continues to stand up against tough opponents like La Canada, Camarillo and San Marcos.

“We try to run many plays that will force the opponents’ blockers to move, to adjust,” Keen said. “We’re really trying implement a diverse offensive system.”

That system will depend largely on the play of the setters Ashleigh Tippet and freshman Erin Indermill, who will run the same two-setter offense as every other team in the league with the exception of Saugus.

It may still be a mystery where Hart stacks up against the rest of the Foothill, but Keen is certain of one thing — her team is vastly improved from where it was during summer preseason workouts.

Canyon Cowboys

Already, Canyon (4-0) has more wins than it had all of last season.

Granted, the wins haven’t come against the upper echelon of volleyball teams in Southern California, but it’s all the start of what first-year head coach Brandon Johnson calls a program revival.

“They’re gaining confidence for the girls,” Johnson said of his team’s 4-0 record headed into league play. “It’s confidence that the girls haven’t had very much before because of lack of success.”

A year ago, the Cowboys finished 3-16 overall, with two of the wins coming against Golden Valley.

Seven seniors return this season, and Johnson is doing everything he can to erase the team’s recent struggles.

“It takes some time for them to adjust to me and my style and what I’m trying to implement into the program,” Johnson said. “I don’t think it’s a one-year thing what I’m trying to do. This is a program-wide change.”

Golden Valley Grizzlies

The 2011 Grizzlies are basically the same team as the 2010 version.

The eight returning starters just hope the results are different.

Third-year head coach Jeff Cody sees that as a distinct possibility given the fact that the program has never had this much consistency.

“This is my third season here with the girls and I’ll say this is probably the most, I don’t want to say the most talented, but the most experienced team I’ve had,” Cody said.

It’s also the first time the girls volleyball team has kept the same head coach for more than two seasons.

Although the Grizzlies (1-3) haven’t won a league match since Cody took over, his influence has created a more competitive atmosphere and thus, attracted more talented club players than ever before.

“It’s no longer, ‘Oh, anyone can make the team,’” Cody said. “It’s, ‘You’re really going to have to work to make the team.’”

The only significant graduation loss was outside hitter Sam Holcombe, leaving the Grizzlies with several second- and third-year varsity players at every position.

Golden Valley’s strength appears to be defense, where junior Hanna Acree enters her third year on the team and leads a scrappy defense that has already given opponents trouble.

“I’m hoping this is the year that we finally kind of break into where we finally start beating league teams,” Cody said.


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