Division Shakeup, Hard Work Ahead

High-flying sophomore # 5 Alyse Ford returns to the court, one of high school volleyball’s most dominating hitters. Photo by Robert Campbell

The Laguna Beach girls volleyball team kicked off its season yesterday in a re-aligned CIF division 1-A. Corona del Mar and Loyola Marymount, teams that escorted Laguna to early playoff exits the past two seasons, have been moved up to 1-AA, clearing the way for the pre-season number one Breakers to make a run at a sixth title, and first since Laguna won two straight in 2006-07.

No matter the sport, all high school coaches have to rebuild lineups when players graduate. This season, Coach Lance Stewart, who always seems to find a way to fill graduation holes, has his work cut out for him.

He has a solid foundation on which to build, with senior Sevana Dvorak setting and all-CIF sophomore Alyse Wallace Ford in what should be a potent scoring combination. “After that, it’s wide open,” Stewart said of his still developing lineup.

Even with those two pieces in place, the Breakers, who made it to the finals the last two years at the Queen’s Court Tournament in Anaheim, struggled to find their rhythm last weekend at the preseason tournament. “It was a good learning experience,” said Stewart. “We clearly tried probably eight different starting lineups this weekend.”

It should be interesting to see what Wallace Ford does for an encore, after finishing last season with 115 kills in a five-match playoff flurry that ended in the semifinals after she powered 31 past CdM in the loss. Her 456 kills on the season shattered Dana Hutchison’s (’08) freshman record of 341. “I think she’s the best outside hitter in the southern section,” said Stewart.

Dvorak becomes only the third starting setter in the past eight years for Laguna, and the first not named Palmer. “It’s been a little strange,” said Stewart.
All-CIF setters Allison Palmer is in her first year playing for Arizona State, and her older sister Alexandra, also an all-CIF setter, is in her final season at Santa Clara.

Dvorak comes from Laguna volleyball royalty, as her father Rudy, aunt Diedra and uncle Dusty all played the sport at a high level through college. Dusty went on to win a gold medal as the starting setter on the 1984 U.S. Olympic team. “Sevana Dvorak‘s a good setter, has a high volleyball IQ, and we’re totally confident in her,” said Stewart.

After several years competing in the California Challenge, Stewart decided to pass on the grueling mid-season San Diego tournament this year, hoping to keep his team fresh going into post-season. Even so, the Breakers still face a schedule that features some of the best teams in southern California, including CdM, Newport Harbor, Mira Costa, JSerra and Dana Hills. “We don’t shy away from anybody,” said Stewart.

Seniors Alex Murphy and Julia Goggin should get their share of kills opposite Wallace Ford. And fellow senior Seneca Jakosky will battle sophomore Francie Holte for time at Libero. Aside from Wallace Ford, Goggin, Dvorak and Murphy, few others on the team have seen much varsity action, and six are new to the squad.

The rest of the lineup should sort itself out early on in practice games, where spirit and hustle can lead to promotion. “If you’re making a lot of plays, we’ll just switch you to the other side of the net,” said Stewart.

The relatively short season means that if things don’t sort themselves out in a hurry, Stewart will have to move things along. “We don’t have a whole lot of time to be experimenting, and trying different people here and trying different people there,” he said. “You gotta take the kids you think can develop, develop them, and then run with it. That’s how you become the best high school team you can become.”

If anyone has an eye for identifying and developing talent, it’s Stewart, whose past teams at Laguna and CdM have won five CIF titles, two state titles and two national championships. “In any sport, at any level, it’s hard to win a championship,” said the veteran coach. “You gotta be a little lucky, you gotta get better, you gotta play together as a team. If you do that and put the effort in, I like our chances.”

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