Hart teammates Ruby Duncan (10) and Kylie Tengberg (22) celebrate a point against St. Paul at Hart High on Thursday, October 18, 2018. (Photo by Dan Watson)

2019 Foothill League girls volleyball preview

Girls volleyball is one of the most competitive prep sports in the Santa Clarita Valley, and this year looks to be no different as multiple teams could be vying for the Foothill League title this season.

Valencia is the only Foothill League team to be ranked in the CIF-Southern Section polls this season, listed third in Division 3 in the most recent rankings.

The Vikings went 4-1 in nonleague play, sweeping three of their opponents and losing one match to San Marcos. The difference in Valencia’s competitive grit in games is noticeable and helped them rack up the wins in preleague.

“The first day of spring practice, we wrote down a bunch of words and we picked our top ones and one of them was relentless,” said Aly Grodell after Valencia’s 3-1 win over Notre Dame Academy in late August. 

“So that’s our one goal throughout the year is to be relentless. And so far I think it could get better, but it’s really showing that everyone is working.”

All-Foothill League honorable mention setter Kaelyn White returns for her senior year with the Vikings, along with standout middle blocker Macy Kirkwood and Grodell, an outside hitter. The three were named captains ahead of this season.

“When she’s doing the things she’s able to do, there’s not a lot of people that can stop her,” said coach Ray Sanchez of Grodell. “She’s a force at the net. It’s surprising sometimes how hard it is to convince her or how hard it’s been to convince her that she is a dominant, dominant player and she’s starting to get her mind around that and thrive in that.”

Hart comes into this season ready to challenge the Vikings and win a second straight league title. The Indians were the undefeated Foothill League champions last season and return Ruby Duncan and Megan Soto from the title-winning team.

Duncan is a four-year varsity player who had a breakthrough season last year and was almost always in double-digits in matches when it came to kills. This season, she’s adding setting duties in addition to playing opposite.

“It just comes naturally to her and she’s very comfortable leading the team and doing that type of position,” said Hart coach Mary Irilian. “It’s just really been a nice transition this year for her.” 

The Indians went 3-2 in preleague, beating Stockdale, San Marcos and Granada Hills Charter while falling to Village Christian and La Canada.

This season, Hart wants the same success as last year, but might not go about it the same way.

“Our focus from day one was new year, new team and as much as last year was such a great season for us, we can’t live on that right now and we have to focus on the new goals ahead and working on a new group of girls coming into the team,” Irilian said.

In the season-opening match against Stockdale, Soto logged 24 kills, which was one kill away from tying Hart’s single-game record.

West Ranch and Saugus could contend for the league title this season as well.

The Wildcats had a lengthy preleague and went 10-3 in those nonleague matches. Allison Jacobs, a senior and UCLA commit, was a major playmaker in those matches but was away from her team for the last two matches of preleague as she traveled to Egypt for the 2019 FIVB Volleyball Girls’ U18 World Championship.

Last season, Jacobs lead the team in kills with 297 and digs with 199.

Returning players who could make an impact this season include setter Erin Eskoff, libero Olivia Hoffman and setter/opposite Gwen Garate.

“Gwen’s really come into her own in the last year, even just like the last six months she’s done a lot of different leadership things and maturing and it’s transitioning to her being a little bit more of a rock for us,” said West Ranch coach Jamey Ker after a preleague win over Burroughs.

The Wildcats are also welcoming 10 new players to the team, but developing chemistry hasn’t been a problem, according to Jacobs.

“Getting to know them personally, so we look at each other as more than just teammates,” she said. “Now we’re looking at each other as friends and making jokes together and actually having fun and you see the chemistry really coming together and these girls are amazing.”

Saugus also brings aboard a bevy of new players, with 10 new players joining the varsity team after 10 seniors graduated last season.

The Centurions also had a long preleague at 11 matches, winning nine of them. The team went 9-2 as it got new players adjusted to varsity play while allowing returners like Jackie Ibarra, Brianna Plunk and Melanie Goeres to further develop their volleyball as well as leadership abilities.

“The seniors that were major contributors last year were Bri, Jackie and Mel,” said coach Zach Ambrose. “I think everybody else is from the JV team or new to the school. The people who are starting, it’s a mix of senior experience and some new faces.”

The Cents’ only freshman, Milani Lee, will start at setter this season.

“She’s doing a great job learning the game on the fly and setting people up, so I like that improvement,” Ambrose said after a win against Taft in early September.

Canyon went 3-8 in preleague and graduated key players Sasha Thomas-Oakley and Laska Stanford, but the Cowboys could carry over their aggressive style of play from last season into this year.

Golden Valley brings back setter Jordan Nunez, who had 52 kills in 20 sets last season. She finished second in the team in digs with 50 and in assists with 55.

The Grizzlies went 4-5 in their nonleague slate and will be under the leadership of first-year head coach Natalie Filetti this year.

Golden Valley will be at Valencia for a 5:15 game tonight to begin the season. Hart will be at Saugus at 5 p.m. and West Ranch plays at Canyon at 5:30 p.m.

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