Corona del Mar High senior Katie Craig considers her 18th birthday as one she'll never forget.
There were a lot of reasons why. The 18th birthday of any high school kid is meaningful, but Craig had a huge girls' volleyball match — the Battle of the Bay — that night.
On top of that, it was considered her "golden" birthday because she turned 18 on Sept. 18.
"I'm a very sentimental person, so it was special to me," Craig said. "It was the best birthday I've ever had, easily."
Some of Newport Harbor's visiting fans tried to throw Craig off her game. They started singing "Happy birthday" as she stepped back to serve during the match.
Craig, undeterred, ate that up just like some birthday cake.
"They don't really know me that well, because I love that kind of stuff," she said. "I love attention and all of that. The [CdM] crowd got ahold of that, and they started singing, but kind of in a nicer, more appreciative tone."
Craig was a big reason why the Sea Kings swept the Sailors on that night, registering a match-high 13 kills in CdM's 25-19, 25-14, 25-12 win. On her golden birthday, she made sure that CdM stayed golden in the Back Bay rivalry match, winning it for the fifth straight year.
The Daily Pilot Athlete of the Week is sweet and outgoing when you talk to her. She has stepped up this year for the Sea Kings (8-1), ranked No. 6 in CIF Southern Section Division 1AA.
Last year, Craig was the second option at outside hitter. That changed when the 2013 Newport-Mesa Player of the Year, Stanford commit Hayley Hodson, left CdM after her junior season for academic and personal reasons. This past July, Hodson led the U.S. women's junior national team to gold at the NORCECA Under-20 Women's Continental Championships in Guatemala.
Craig, a Colorado State commit, is about six inches shorter than Hodson at 5-foot-8.
"I like to say 5-9 in volleyball shoes," Craig said with a laugh.
Whatever the height, though, she is getting the job done for the Sea Kings. Second-year CdM Coach Steve Astor praised her serve receive, passing and blocking, comparing her to a five-tool player in baseball.
"It's easy for people to write her off when they see her warm up or something," Astor said. "The girls' game is getting so big. A lot of coaches are so enamored with height ... I try to look for the best athletes. We have a lot of athletes on the court. [Craig] is a good example of how our team plays this year."
Astor said that this year's Sea Kings might be short on thunderous kills, but they are fun to watch. Of the regulars, only junior middle blocker Natalia Bruening (6-foot-3) stands out because of her height.
"If you look at our whole lineup, maybe they're not 6-4 or anything, but they're just such good athletes," Craig said, agreeing with her coach. "They have the best determination. It's awesome."
Craig is one of three team captains, along with senior setter Paige Migliori and junior opposite/setter Jessie Harris. In the Battle of the Bay match they didn't let anything faze them, even as Newport Harbor got off to a hot start in the opening set.
"I think the Battle of the Bay was primarily about who can control their emotions the best," Astor said. "Katie did a phenomenal job of that."
Craig said the pressure doesn't really get to her. She's never been one of the tallest. When she started playing volleyball it was because her mom Linda, who played volleyball collegiately at Cal State Bakersfield, would hold little clinics for her and her friends. And older sister Sarah, who was a talented runner at CdM (class of 2011) and now attends George Washington University, also was a motivation.
At that time, around the third grade, Katie still was into other sports. She was a star soccer goalie for Andersen Elementary in the Daily Pilot Cup. But volleyball became more and more of a focus, to the point that she joined TCA as a libero and setter in sixth grade.
"At that point, I could not hit the ball over the net for my life," said Craig, who most recently played club for Laguna Beach Volleyball Club. "I was so little, and I couldn't even swing. It was really frustrating. I just played libero and setter and basically learned the game in a higher-level way than just clinics with your mom."
Katie now works to try to find the right angle, and she said that beach volleyball has helped in that regard. She also said that Sarah, who is a political science and communications major at George Washington and wants to become a lobbyist, also continues to provide inspiration.
Katie called her older sister "an absolute genius."
"I definitely think of her as a role model, not so much in the athletic aspect," Katie Craig said. "Not because she's not an athlete, but just because she would teach me more ways of how to be a better person, how to be a better leader. She's constantly an inspiration for me to work on my grades and stuff. Just having conversations with her, she uses crazy words. You're just like, 'OK, I want to be able to understand that.' She's changed a lot over the years, and it was really hard to see her go away [to college]. She's just very classy and very sophisticated, and it makes me want to be like that, where people just respect you."
Katie Craig, a three-year varsity player, continues to earn the respect for CdM. The Sea Kings may not be overpowering anyone but they are getting the results, having advanced to the quarterfinals of the Dave Mohs Tournament. Craig missed that tournament last year after a concussion sidelined her about two weeks.
Craig had a team-best 10 kills as CdM opened Pacific Coast League play with an easy win over Irvine on Wednesday. She's excited as the Sea Kings next week prepare to head to the Mother McAuley ASICS Challenge, in Chicago on Oct. 3-4.
It will be another chance for Craig to shine. The opportunity isn't one that she takes lightly.
"I'm excited that I finally got to play that [first outside hitter] position for my school, especially senior year," she said. "A lot of people would be like, 'Are you intimidated that you have such big shoes to fill?'
"My answer would be, 'No, I'm excited that I finally get to fill those shoes.'"
Born: Sept. 18, 1996
Hometown: Newport Beach
Coach: Steve Astor
Favorite food: Sushi
Favorite movie: "Up"
Favorite athletic moment: Helping short-handed Corona del Mar defeat USC-bound Brittany Abercrombie's La Costa Canyon team in three tough sets last year at the ASICS California Challenge tournament.