Graduation is typically the time of year when high school coaches truly realize their task for the next season as cap and gowned students receive their walking papers. But for Hugo Ayala, San Marino High School’s girls’ varsity volleyball coach, the bad news arrived just hours before the start of the 2016 campaign.
That’s when Ayala found out that Sofia Sanchez, a junior, chosen to play the second half of her high school career for La Salle High School.
A 1st team all-Rio Hondo League selection last year as a sophomore, Sanchez was the Lady Titans’ top hitter and at 6’2,” well, the sky’s the limit.
“It is what it is,” said Ayala. “You can only control what you can control. That is something I tell the girls all the time and that statement is certainly true in this case.”
Fortunately for the Lady Titans, Ayala had never allowed his offense to become too Sanchez-centric, insisting on a varied offensive attack that uses the entire lineup.
“This season has been one that has included a lot of teaching,” said the second-year coach. “I have had to slow down a lot this year, go back and reteach some things. We are a very young group with only three seniors. Our goal right now is to try to learn and get better every day.”
Those three seniors will be relied upon to lead one of the youngest teams in the program’s rich history in a wide-open Rio Hondo League that is, frankly, anybody’s ballgame.
Senior defensive specialist Sarah Gines provides valuable leadership and enthusiasm.
“Sarah is super positive and brings a lot of energy to the court,” said Ayala. “She provides the perfect spark off the bench when we need it. When things aren’t going so well, I can always look to Sarah and she will bring us to a better place.”
Outside hitter Kate Dugally will get plenty of opportunities to contribute.
“Kate has earned a pretty big role this year,” said Ayala. “She has a lot of experience and can be a big part of the team this year. She is a solid all-around player who does a lot of things well.”
Senior Melanie Leung returns as the Lady Titans’ libero, a permanent defensive specialist, after being named to the all-Rio Hondo League 1st team in 2015.
“Mel is a very steady player,” Ayala said, putting a hreat deal of emphasis on the workd ‘very.’ “Our offense is really based on our passing and that is why Mel is so important. Mel anchors our passing. When she plays well the energy is great and our offense clicks.”
Junior Nicole Doerges is a dynamic, free-swinging outside hitter who was rewarded by Rio Hondo League coaches last year by being designated as ab honorable mention designee.
“I am excited to see what Nicole does this year.,” said Ayala. “She has improved so much as far as her mindset is concerned. She is going to get a lot of swings. She played very well during the tournament and is a key element in our offense.”
The tournament to which Ayala refers is the Molten Classic, which was contested last week in Long Beach. Doerges recorded a head-turning 29 kills in one match against Palisades and provided relentless offensive punch.
Junior middle blocker Jackie Brougham will be called upon to negate the opposition’s best offensive threats and is more than up to the task.
“Jackie has improved so much this year and she has added a lot of offense to her game,” said Ayala. “She came up really large in our season-opening game against Arcadia. We are also hoping to work her into our rotation of hitters.”
Junior Sera Thaichareon was impressive over the holiday with her solid setting and dependable defense.
“Sera does not have a lot of volleyball experience, but she is learning at a very fast pace,” Ayala said. “She comes into the gym with what she is given and makes things happen. Sera is a really fast learner and a joy to have on the team.”
Sabella Singh, also a junior, is one of those athletes you want to see on the field of play.
“Sabella is pretty similar to Sera,” Ayala explained. “She does not have a lot of experience but she works so hard. Her improvement from the first day is tremendous. Sabella will go out and compete and I like that.”
Junior Yami Evans is new to San Marino High School, but has already made a positive impression on her coach.
“Yami is a strong right side hitter and libero,” said Ayala. “I am glad she transferred over. She must sit out 30 days, but once that time is up, she will find a place on the court. Yami is getting better and that is what we want.”
Sophomore Morgan Wong woke up one day and she was playing middle blocker for the Lady Titans.
“Morgan has really jumped into that middle spot,” Ayala said. “She is not your traditional middle blocker, but she does a good job and makes things happen. She has been doing really well for us.”
Only a sophomore, outside hitter Keila Barra improved was so impressive last year as a freshman that she was named 2nd team all-Rio Hondo League in her debut season.
“Keila is a very good player,” said Ayala. “She is stepping into that main outside hitter spot, but Keila is and excellent all-around volleyball player. She also has the best passing percentage and dig ratio. What Keila brings to the court is so valuable. Serving, offense, defense. She can do it all.”
When the Rio Hondo League season opens on September 22, Ayala might have handed the keys of the offense to sophomore setter Hanna Wang. A legacy if there ever was one, Hanna’s older sister, Nicole, graduated from SMHS in June after four fine years in the program. Older brother Nathan saw substantial playing time for the boys’ team as both a freshman and sophomore. And parents Tina & Henry were standouts at SMHS back in the days of Cameron & Imamura.
“Last year, our goal was to run a very quick offense,” Ayala explained. “Hanna has not really set for a whole season, but she gets better every game. We are hoping to be able to do some interesting, dynamic things offensively as the season goes on. Hanna is also a clutch server. She was a serving specialist last year and her role has only expanded this season.”
Sophomore Emily Boutin brings energy off the bench as a defensive specialist.
“Emily has such solid energy, all around,” Ayala said. “She is always finding some way to pick up the team. Emily is ready whenever we need her. She is the type of kid I can throw in the game when we are out of timeouts to give us a spark. I really trust her.”
Sophomore Malia Evans will compete for the crowded position of defensive specialist.
“Malia is really young, but you can tell she has a great desire to improve,” Ayala said. “She has a great work ethic. Coaching kids like that is fun. She catches on quickly to new subjects and is really mindful if what is going on in the gym.”
Ayala has brought freshman Morgan Woodward up to the varsity in hopes of fortifying the middle blocker position.
“Morgan is a fast learner and is very athletic,” the coach said. “The key is getting her up to varsity speed. I don’t think she has ever played anywhere besides the middle school program at San Marino. We are looking for some really good things from her in the future.”
Ah, yes, the future. Which is suddenly ‘now’ for the Lady Titans. Fortunately, graduation and injuries have leveled the Rio Hondo League playing field to the point that the title is, in Ayala’s words, “up for grabs.”
“Injuries. Transfers. Graduation. Some of the teams are very young. That’s really the way it is right now. It’s just up for grabs,” Ayala said. “Overall, there are not a lot of big-time senior players in the league and that immaturity is going to show. Whatever team can figure out their mindset, to play to win instead of playing not to lose, that will be the ticket. We lost Sofia but we have to find a way to move on.”
And quickly. The Lady Titans have a slew of early home games with which to gain their bearings. Alemany visits on Thursday, Sept. 15 and are followed into town by Diamond Ranch on Sept. 19 before the Rams come calling on Sept. 22 for the Rio Hondo League opener. Mark Thursday, Sept. 29 on your calendar and, more importantly, head over to SMHS to see how the Lady Titans match up against South Pasadena.
“This is going to be a very interesting year,” said Ayala. “I am very much looking forward to seeing how we adapt as the season goes on.”