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New look, usual suspects

Foothill League championship may be up for grabs for first time in years

Posted: March 31, 2009 1:50 a.m.
Updated: March 31, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Valencia's Jon Souisa spikes the ball on May 9, 2008 against West Ranch at Valencia High.

 
There may be no program as dominant in its respective sport in the Santa Clarita Valley than Valencia boys volleyball.

But fresh off their consensus national championship, the Vikings will look completely different this year.

Among those gone from the historic 2008 team are Jamey Ker, Jon Griffith, Jake Piva, Eric Miyamoto, Jim Baughman, Derrick Trent, Gio Botten and Skyler Seymour.

In fact, the Vikings only have three holdovers that were a part of the 36-2 team.

So far this year, Valencia is a meager 3-6.

Senior Jon Souisa, one of the team's few returners, went down early in the season with an ankle injury and missed two weeks.

At first glance one might think, is it time Valencia is dethroned?

Not so fast.

Though he has a young team - three sophomores, six juniors and three seniors - Valencia head coach Mark Knudsen is in no hurry to panic.

"One of the benefits of less maturity is that you see a lot of improvement," he said. "From our first match against Westlake, to our last match against Santa Barbara, we've gotten better. They are willing to work hard and are willing to be coachable."

Knudsen says he has shuffled up his starters and their positions, and with Souisa out most of the pre-league play, Valencia's best play is potentially yet to come.

"We really haven't had a chance to try out what I think is our better lineup," Knudsen said. "We have some great athletes."

With guys like Steven Crane, who was a backup last year, at setter, Garrett Steadman, Mitchell Morris, Broc Oppler, Daniel Johnson and Nick Ferry at libero, the Vikings may lure in competition with images of weakness.

One such team looking to strike is West Ranch, a school many of the coaches expect to make a run at the reigning champs.

Returning this season is Jeff Zepp, back to lead the Wildcats alongside fellow setter, Frankie Madero, junior Wes Bowen, Michael Scott and Kulwinder Singh.

"Our goal as to be first and the way we've been playing lately we have a chance at that," said second-year West Ranch head coach Nate Sparks. "But I think the top schools will roughly be the same as they were last year."

While he may not have many guys returning from last season's varsity roster, Sparks doesn't believe the new guys coming up will be ill-prepared for the rigors of league play as he tries to keep players on junior varsity as long as possible.

"(It helps) because it gives them the playing time and experience they need as opposed to sitting on the bench for varsity," he said. "It gives them that extra year to play with each other as well. I haven't seen a drop off from last year's team to this year's team."

But one of the biggest changes might be the addition of Andrew Yamane, a transfer from Village Christian of Sun Valley.

The team is currently waiting on a ruling expected later today by the CIF to determine whether the senior will be able to play this season.

According to Sparks, the team is ready, motivated and even began conditioning three weeks earlier than any other Foothill League team.

"One thing that is big time different, we have two setters that play the whole time," Sparks said. "We also have three big left-hand hitters, which is difficult to find in any program. The team chemistry is just a whole lot better this year."

However, Saugus does not want to be left out of the discussion either.

"We are very young but with experience, which is unusual," said Saugus head coach Jared Ambrose. "Five of my starters have played club volleyball, which is impossible unless you are Valencia."

With only three seniors - Mike and Matt Romero and Kyle Eaton - on this season's team, some of the greatest impact may come from junior T.J. Jeffres, whom Ambrose called the team's "best player," as well as 6-foot-5-inch junior setter Ryan Mason and 6-foot-3-inch freshman Colby Wilson.

If the Centurions are unable to break through this season, expect them to come back in force next season.

However, Saugus is currently waiting on Jeffres to determine whether he will play.

Expecting to find out today, a trip to the playoffs could ride on the 6-foot outside hitter's decision.

Ambrose believes there is potential out there for the Centurions to have a big season.

"It is really hard to gauge because I still think (Valencia) is the team to beat," he said. "Between two and five, the gap has really been narrowed."

Another team looking to be in the mix is Hart.

Head coach Mary Krisan has described her squad as a fighting, scrappy, never-give-up sort of team.

Sophomores J.J. Mosolf and Taylor Gregory are two such players that have exemplified the Indians' style with their towering play at the net, both powerfully and with a soft touch.

In the offseason, Mosolf switched to setter for the first time in his career.

Gregory, who played club with Mosolf is eligible to play this season after transfering from Valencia.

With juniors Nate Pedrick and and Andrew Uberstine, who is the only returner from last year's team, the Indians have the potential to contend in the Foothill League during what many might consider a rebuilding year.

"I've seen (the team) communicate to help bring each other up so that we don't have a weakest link and don't leave people behind," Krisan said. "It has made it much easier to transition into good play and successful execution."

They will get their chance to prove themselves right off the bat when they host Valencia at 5:15 p.m. today to open league play, and will bring with them a three-game winning streak.

With only three seniors on this year's team, you can expect to hear about Hart for years to come.

Another team described as scrappy, while also quick with a creative attack is Golden Valley, who is looking to surprise some people this season.

Starting out with a 7-3 record, first-year head coach Alex Diksas is cautiously optimistic.

"We want to improve," Diksas said. "We attack the ball pretty well. We just want to improve on our blocking and our defense."

Boasting six seniors on this year's squad, Diksas identified brothers Mikael and Cody Hounanian and Daniel Bergstrom as players to watch.

However, it is the sophomore corps of Ryan Kessler, 6-foot-4-inch middle hitter Andrew Raulinitas and Ryan Holcombe that might give Golden Valley supporters the most excitement.

"I'd say that two years from now we will have our best team, but right now we have a pretty good squad," Diksas said.

Entering league, the Grizzlies have already lost senior Alan Van Lohn, who is out with a shoulder injury.

The Grizzlies will face a tough challenge when they travel to West Ranch in their league opener today at 5:15 p.m.

And while Golden Valley looks to build its program, so are Canyon's co-head coaches Brian Ingino and Jeff Cody.

"There is a lot more team chemistry this year," Ingino said. "Last year we barely got fifth place out of six teams. We have the same problems with experience that we had last year, and that leads to a lack of ball control at times."

That problem refers to a lack general interest that leads to a shallow volleyball-specific talent pool.

However, the Cowboys will return the services of seniors Alex Reeves and Matt Veiga, while welcoming basketball convert Michael Edwards and Curtis Van Grinsven.

"We have just seen a lot of improvement," Cody said. "I think that is our goal. Last season was rough and we are looking to improve."

Cody also pointed out sophomore Kevin Hancock and junior Doug Deagon as players to watch for this season, who, with a growing interest in volleyball, will look to impact the program in the years to come.

All the while, Ingino sees a lot of similarity this season as in years past.

"I think a lot of people are hopeful and think this will be their year, but never underestimate Valencia," he said. "I think everyone is going to underrate Valencia. Big time."

Canyon opens Foothill League play at Saugus at 5:15 p.m. today.


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