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BRIAN WHITEHEAD, STAFF
Kennedy High boys volleyball players Josh Ledda, left, and Levi Campello are letter winners for the Irish. “We're a family more than a team,” Ledda says.

Kennedy volleyball on quest for first league title

STAFF WRITER

LA PALMA - To the left of the boys golf banner is an empty space.

Kennedy High, like all high schools, hangs banners in its gymnasium honoring league championship teams of old. The Irish have gold banners for past baseball and basketball champions, wrestling champions and other titlists, boys and girls, in nearly every sport.

The only team banner missing appears to be boys volleyball.

“That’s where ours will go,” Kennedy senior Josh Ledda said last week, pointing to the empty space in the rafters. “At least, we hope.”

No Kennedy volleyball team has won a league championship. The program remains relatively new, in fact. Irish coach Travis Warner’s baby.

Warner, formerly a college and beach player, resuscitated boys volleyball at Kennedy nine years ago, during his first year at the school.

This 2015 team, he said, is his best shot at a winner.

“We may be down talent-wise from previous years, but we have the best circumstances to win league,” Warner said. “These guys are a family. They always hang out together. ... This is the first group I’ve had where the entire team is playing for each other.”

***

Warner recently held a morning practice during spring break.

Five minutes till it started, he stood in an empty gym, waiting. He texted his kids, asked where they were. He received a text back that said the entire team had spent the previous night in a theater, watching “Furious 7” till 1:30 in the morning. Everyone would arrive shortly.

Moviegoing, Warner said, is just one of the things his kids do together. They eat at the same lunch table. They hang out after practice. They learn.

“We’re a family more than a team,” said Ledda, Warner’s libero and a three-year letter winner. “It’s a brotherhood. Our connection off the court is more important than what we’re doing on the court.”

Warner believes team chemistry is good for a few points every match. And in a race to 25 per set, every point counts.

The front row trusts the back row, and vice versa, Warner said. The setters trust the hitters, and the hitters listen to what the setters have to say. It’s truly all for one, one for all type stuff. There are no egos.

Kennedy runs certain sets in certain situations, but cannot execute if everyone isn’t playing on a string. Practices help that cohesion, but matches often provide the greatest test of selflessness and camaraderie.

Warner puts his players in positions of strength, and they “allow game situations to happen,” he said.

“Each player knows his spot on the court,” said Levi Campello, Warner’s outside hitter and a first-year letter winner. “One person doesn’t carry all the weight. We can pick each other up if we’re falling, get each other back up to where we need to be.”

***

A few bad eggs in the late-1990s forced Kennedy to shut down its volleyball program.

Coaching girls volleyball in San Jose at the time, Warner shepherded Willow Glen High’s renaissance. In Warner’s three years at the school, Willow Glen captured consecutive Santa Teresa Division girls championships – the first and second in school history.

Warner took a teaching job at Kennedy in 2005, and immediately sought a way to revive the dormant boys program. Seventy-five kids attended his first meeting. But starting the program from scratch required more than warm bodies, he said.

“Kids don’t grow up playing volleyball, so you have to teach them how to play,” Warner continued. “It’s fun, though. It’s a great time. That’s what you want to do. They love the game. They don’t want to leave the gym, and the kids you get care about what they do.”

Though talented, many of Warner’s top players that inaugural season lacked volleyball IQ. He taught his kids fundamentals, then strategy and game-planning, filling in the blanks where necessary. His kids caught on, and Kennedy began winning matches.

“Start of a legacy” became the program’s motto. Warner even screen-printed it on shirts.

Turnout fluctuated through the years, but letter winners returned, and newcomers kept the program humming. Warner kept a junior varsity and a varsity team, meaning as the sport’s popularity increased on campus, he cut his share of hopefuls to avoid overcrowding.

He recently created a frosh-soph team to accommodate the surplus, saying his freshmen and sophomores play 10-12 matches a season. It’s one of the few such teams in Orange County, Warner said. A superb feeder program.

“We wanted to set a precedent,” he said.

***

Ledda called Warner “a chill guy,” adding “he loves the game for what it is.”

Last Friday, Warner could be found in Kennedy’s auxiliary gym toward the end of practice monitoring a rotating line of serves. His shirt, drenched in sweat. His camouflage baseball cap, backward.

This year’s Kennedy troupe truly has taken on the personality of its coach. Everybody laughs in unison. Everyone cracks jokes. During a brief photo shoot, Warner tells his players to look in different directions off-camera. They oblige. Laughter and ribbing ensues.

Make no mistake, Kennedy’s lightheartedness is not carelessness. This group of kids, Warner said, plays better when it’s loose.

“On the court, I want to be the best I can be in my actions,” said Ledda, the team’s purported ringleader. “I give it my all. I let no balls drops. Off the court, I show enthusiasm not just for the game, but for the sport. I’m a passionate guy, and I’m going to be there for my team no matter what.”

Ledda, Campello and Warner all point to the Cypress match on March 24 as the moment everything clicked, the moment everyone began believing.

Yorba Linda left the Empire League this season to join the Crestview League, vacating its perennial spot near the top of the standings. Kennedy finished second to Yorba Linda in 2013 , and then third to league titlist Tustin and the Mustangs last season.

Tustin began 2015 the favorite, with Cypress likely its top competitor.

Kennedy – which returned four letter winners this season – dropped the first set to Cypress, then fell behind, 23-21, in the second. Losing consecutive sets, Ledda said, would’ve been insurmountable.

The Irish fought back, though, taking the second, 26-24. They then won the next two, taking the match, 3-1.

“That’s when I knew we had something special,” Ledda said.

Two days later, Kennedy beat Tustin in five sets.

***

Warner knows there still are mountains left to climb.

Though it has qualified for the postseason six of the past seven years, Kennedy has won just one playoff match over that span – a five-set win in 2010 over Santa Fe. Last year’s team got bounced by Windward in three sets – one less set than its predecessor.

Kennedy this offseason dropped to Division 4, where Warner said it will play postseason matches against “similar-caliber teams.” The Irish recently cracked the division’s top-10 poll, landing at No. 8 on March 30 – the highest-ranked Empire League team.

“There’s a lot of pressure now,” Campello said.

The focus now, Warner said, is redoing whatever it did right against Cypress and Tustin eight more times in league. Kennedy already has played Empire mates Pacifica and Valencia in preseason tournaments, splitting two matches with Pacifica and winning the Valencia match.

Warner believes his kids are ready for the challenge. They want that banner.

“We’re hyped,” Campello said.

Contact the writer: 714-704-3790 or bwhitehead@ocregister.com


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