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Varsity volleyball fights for championship title with new head coach

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Junior hitter and co-captain Jane Seslar spikes the ball. Photo by Kelley Grade

Last season, under the direction of coach Steven Wesley, the girls’ varsity volleyball team went undefeated, becoming Academic Athletic Association (AAA) champions for the fourth consecutive year. This season, with new head coach Kelly Sung leading them, the Cardinals are well on the way to continuing this winning streak with a strong focus on defense and communication.

The Cards kicked off their preseason on Aug. 30 with a 3–0 win against the University Red Devils, and their regular season began on Sept. 16 in a 3–1 win against the Wallenberg Bulldogs. Thus far they have won all of their games with the exception of a difficult match against the Lincoln Mustangs on Sep. 23, which they lost 3–1. The team has a 13–1 record and is now advancing to the playoffs, where they will face the Eagles for a spot in the championships.

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Head coach Kelly Sung, who has coached at San Francisco Juniors Volleyball Club for the past six years, was excited to take on the new challenge of coaching a high school volleyball team. She said that high school teams have varying levels of maturity and experience compared to club teams, but the level of play on the court is about the same.

Under Sung’s direction, a player’s performance during practice determines the amount of playing time she gets during games. This competitive approach gives everyone equal opportunity to showcase their skills and earn playing time, according to senior hitter Emily Yee. In past years, Wesley, the former coach, focused practices mainly on developing the skills of his first row — the players who typically play the whole game — which would leave some team members unprepared during games, according to senior setter and co-captain Madison Kittredge.

“We’ve had to change up our drills in order to adapt.”

This season, the Cards have focused on building strong defense, specifically blocking, serve receive and ball control. The team has been putting a new emphasis on blocking after losing many of last year’s seniors, who were relatively taller than this year’s players. “There are a lot of girls that we play against that are a lot taller than us, so we’ve had to change up our drills in order to adapt,” junior defensive specialist Kayla Rivera said. “Now since we have shorter girls that may not have the height the block the entire ball, in practices we work on placement and at least getting a touch on it.”

They’re also focusing on serve receive, the way the players control and set up the ball coming over the net. Drills such as “servers versus passers,” allow the players to compete with each other while still working on both skills. The team also runs progression drills, where everyone plays different positions while enforcing ball control. “If we want to get to the championship this year or even get past first round of NorCal, we need to be the best ball control team out there,” said Sung.

Senior Madison Kittredge serves the volleyball to start off the game. Photo by Kelley Grade

Building team communication and chemistry has been vital from the start as there are only six returning players and a new coach. Because so many of the team’s starters graduated last year, the Cardinals were not favored to win, according to sophomore hitter Eunice Go. However, this didn’t stop the Cardinals from succeeding. “I think being the underdogs this year helped each of us strive to be better. And we bonded over how much we wanted to win championships,” said Go. “We put our passion in our play.”

The team’s hard work has payed off. They crushed the Washington Eagles 3–0 in their last regular season game on Nov. 1.

The Cardinals took an early lead and responded to Eagle attacks with impressive digs and blocks. The Cards won the first set 25–14.

“We put our passion in our play.”

The second set began with the Eagles in the lead, but the Cardinals came back with well-placed blocks and soon pulled ahead and gained a wide lead. The Cards finished the set strong, sending powerful spikes into the back corners of their opponent’s court and winning the set 25–12.

In the beginning of the third set, both teams battled for a lead, but Lowell soon pulled ahead with consistent returns from the defense and blocks and spikes by the front line. They quickly won the set 25–12 to emerge Battle of the Birds champions.

Senior middle blocker Naomi Miner jumps to block the ball. Photo by Kelley Grade

Junior hitter and co-captain Jane Seslar said that the team had prepared to take on the Eagles. “We adjusted to their hitting,” she said. “We’d watched a video before so we knew what their hitting tendencies were. Our defense worked really well and we had limited errors.”

The Cardinals will battle the Eagles again in the semifinals at Lowell at 5 p.m. on Nov. 8.

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Varsity volleyball fights for championship title with new head coach