Fryer: Small schools stand tall in volleyball


The last time these two excellent girls volleyball programs met, Sage Hill beat St. Margaret’s in the CIF-Southern Section Division 3AA final.

Sage Hill and St. Margaret’s square off Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. in an Academy League opener. In the CIF-SS Division 3AA rankings, Sage Hill is No. 1 and St. Margaret’s is No. 2.

St. Margaret’s has won six CIF-SS championships. Sage Hill has won four. Sage Hill beat St. Margaret’s in CIF-SS finals in 2005 and ’11. St. Margaret’s beat Sage Hill in the 2012 final.

They are not the only strong small schools teams in county girls volleyball.

Saddleback Valley Christian is No. 1in the 3A poll. The Warriors won that division title last year. Tarbut V’Torah is No. 1 in 5AA, having moved up a division after reaching the 5A quarterfinals last year.

There are enough highly skilled girls volleyball players in Orange County to make many teams CIF-SS championship contenders. And there are enough fine programs to offer those players many choices when it comes to selecting a high school.

Sage Hills senior libero Lina Aluzri knew all about the school when she was an eighth-grader, as her older sister Dina was in the program. But, she said, she would have been familiar with Sage Hills’ girls volleyball even without Dina there.

In the club volleyball world, everybody knows about Sage Hill and the county’s other top small-school programs.

“Sage has a very high reputation,” Aluzri said.

That reputation got a boost four years ago with the arrival of a strong freshman class that included Maddy Abbott, Halland McKenna and Kekai Whitford. McKenna, now a starting freshman libero at Stanford, was CIF-SS 3AA player of the year last season. Abbott, now at Michigan, and Whitford, at Loyola Marymount, were All-CIF.

“It grew when those three freshmen came in,” Aluzri said. “Now we have this big reputation and we have to maintain it.”

There are plenty of new faces on the Sage Hill team. Lighting coach Dan Thomassen shifted a couple of returning players to different positions.

“I think that last year at this time we were farther along than we are now,” Thomassen said. “We’re physically higher over the net this year, but our ball control needs to improve. I know our passing and our defense are going to improve.”

Sage Hill’s 1-5 record is deceptive. The Lightning has played a couple of outstanding teams from larger schools. Among them was a three-game loss to the county’s top-ranked team, Santa Margarita, on Tuesday.

The St. Margaret’s match is not the only challenging league match Thomassen expects. Crean Luthean is ranked No. 7 in 3AA. Thomassen said the league is better, as is the quality of Orange County and CIF-SS small-schools girls volleyball in general.

“It was all St. Margaret’s for a long time,” Thomassen said. “Now, there are a half dozen Division 3 and 4 teams that can hang with a lot of good Division 1 teams. And not just once in a while, but year in and year out.”

Taking a look around Orange County high school sports:

• De La Salle of Concord is the No. 1 football team in California, according to the rankings. Maybe No. 2 Centennial of Corona should be No. 1. Orange Lutheran lost to Centennial last week, 35-14, and plays at De La Salle on Saturday, so the Lancers are about to find out.

• Centennial won the CIF-SS Pac-5 Division championship last year, beating St. John Bosco of Bellflower, 48-41, and lost to De La Salle in the CIF State Open Division game. Orange Lutheran lost to Centennial by three points last year.

• Lutheran coach Chuck Petersen thinks this year’s Centennial Huskies team is superior to the 2014 version. “They’re way better,” Petersen said, “because they’re defense is much better.”

• Many high school football spectators think NFL rules are in place in the high school game. Wrong. For example, a pass does not have to be a catchable pass for there to be pass interference on a play.

• Every season-ending injury is awful, and it’s worse when it happens early in an athlete’s senior year. Valencia offensive lineman Hayden Werbe tore an MCL in the Tigers’ season-opening win over Yorba Linda. Werbe’s dedication and commitment did not waiver, as he has been at every practice when physical therapy does not intervene. As a tribute, Tigers teammate Jacob Briggs is going to find a way to have Werbe’s No. 71 somewhere on his helmet the rest of the season.

• The CIF-SS Council, the section’s rules-making and rules-changing body, has its first meeting Oct. 6. The Council will get its first look at a plan that would make football playoff divisions organized by competitive equity instead of league affiliation. A proposed power-points profile would send teams to playoff divisions according to how strong teams have been in recent history.

• Mater Dei’s boys basketball team plays in the Ron Massey Memorial Fall Hoops Classic on Saturday and Sunday at Long Beach Jordan where Massey coached for many years. The Monarchs play Long Beach Poly in the last of the event’s nine games Saturday at 8:30 p.m. Admission is $10.

• Monarchs All-County 6-foot-10 senior center MJ Cage won’t be at the Massey event. He is at Oregon on a recruiting trip. Cage previously visited San Diego State, where his father Michael was a great player.

• Mater Dei boys basketball has depth. “We have 10 guys who are very, very good,” Coach Gary McKnight said. “This should be one of our better teams.”

• One of the Monarchs’ newer players is 6-foot-7 junior Justice Sueing, who should become a lawyer with that name. Sueing transferred in from Hawaii.

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