There was a time, not long ago, that the Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy volleyball team was not only one of the best within the San Gabriel Valley, but one of the stronger programs in all of Southern California.
That distinction was cultivated on the back of Mission League championships, 20-win seasons and victories versus strong teams, both locally and throughout the Southland.
“When I came here, I was definitely aware of the rich tradition at Flintridge Sacred Heart,” Tologs second-year Coach Ernest Banaag said. “The talent was definitely here, but it was just a matter of finding a leader and building a team.”
Banaag, a winner of three CIF-Southern Section championships at nearby Mayfield Senior School, found such a leader in Sophia Coffey.
Yet, the junior wasn’t a menacing middle blocker or a powerful outside hitter.
Rather, the 16-year-old was even more valuable serving all positions on the court as a setter who excelled at passing and other duties.
Coffey finished with 911 assists, 221 digs, 62 kills and 41 aces, while being named both the Mission League Most Valuable Player and a CIF Southern Section Division I-A first-team selection.
As for her squad, Coffey led the Tologs to a share of the Mission League title, the team’s first 20-win season since 2009 and furthest postseason advancement in six years.
For those accolades and more, Coffey was has been selected the 2013 All-Area Girls' Volleyball Player of the Year by the sports writers and editors of the Glendale News-Press, La Cañada Valley Sun and Burbank Leader.
“Being a setter, I have to be the quarterback of the team. I have to know the strengths of my players and I have to quickly be ready to go to the next play,” said Coffey, whose first position was as a right side hitter at the age of 10. “I have to know what works so I can help my teammates.”
The Seton Hall University-bound setter helped the Tologs jump out to an 8-1 start that included a convincing 25-16, 25-20, 25-22 victory at Rio Hondo League champion and local power South Pasadena on Sept. 16.
In that contest, Coffey totaled 35 assists as three Flintridge Sacred Heart players recorded eight or more kills, including freshman Kayla Lund, who continued a promising debut season with 15 kills on 24 attempts.
“Kayla, she’s a funny girl,” Coffey said. “She came in during the summer and was not used to our sets. ... She developed so much as a player and you could see that growth. It’s been fun to see her grow and read the blocks and know what to do.”
The good times, however, weren’t without a few bumps in the road in the form of divisional powers La Salle and Harvard-Westlake.
The Tologs traveled to face the highly-touted Lancers, the reigning Division I-A champions, on Oct. 1 in jam-packed Duffy Lewis Gymnasium in what was a playoff-like atmosphere.
In that contest, Coffey delivered one of her most inspired efforts, finishing with 42 assists and 12 digs in what was a La Salle 25-17, 24-26, 25-21, 25-19 victory.
Even though the Tologs dropped their second match of the season, they proved the only team to take a set from La Salle at home all season, which built morale while gaining attention.
“It was great to see so many people come out and root us on,” Coffey said. “What makes playing La Salle so tough is that they run so many plays and it’s tough to find a hitter. When we beat them, though, and that gave us the confidence that we could play with anyone.”
Yet, whatever good was gained in a lively battle with La Salle was squandered rather rapidly a week later when the Tologs first traveled to league champion and personal tormentor Harvard-Westlake on Oct. 8.
The Wolverines were not only gunning for a second straight undefeated league championship, but were hoping to extend their own dominance over the Tologs, who entered having dropped 13 straight matches versus Harvard-Westlake and who hadn’t won since Oct. 10, 2006.
Despite those numbers, though, Flintridge Sacred Heart entered as the higher-ranked squad (No. 7 versus No. 10) and owned a better record at the time.
Unfortunately for the Tologs, they again bowed to the Wolverines, as they arguably played one of their worst matches all season in losing 25-21, 25-13, 25-18 in a contest that lasted just longer than an hour.
“The first time we played Harvard-Westlake, we paid attention to who they were and not who we were,” said Coffey, who finished with 29 assists, one of her lowest totals in a three-game match this season. “We were really paying too much attention to what they were doing on their side of the court and not what we were doing on our side. We saw the HW on their shirt and that was a big deal, too big a deal for us.”
The setback was a double whammy as the Tologs dropped a match in the standings, while perhaps taking two steps back in the league championship race.
“That was a real bad loss because we didn’t prove that we deserved to win a league championship. We just let Harvard-Westlake’s reputation overwhelm us,” said Banaag, this year’s All-Area Girls’ Volleyball Coach of the Year. “We were going to have to regroup.”
To little surprise, the Tologs did just that, winning the next four league matches while also dispatching of city rival La Cañada, 25-15, 25-16, 25-21, on Oct. 12 before again running into Harvard-Westlake on Oct. 24 with a share of the league title hanging the balance.
Even with a sweep in the back of their minds, Coffey and crew felt different heading into the home showdown.
“It was just a packed gym and we fed off our home crowd. It was like night and day,” Coffey said. “We had all this energy that we didn’t have the first time.”
Energy was important, but perhaps synergy was the key that evening as Coffey and Lund combined for an amazing effort.
Coffey finished 17 digs and then a season-high 56 assists, many of which were distributed to Lund, who finished with 26 kills as the Tologs scratched a seven-year itch in defeating the Wolverines, 25-23, 25-27, 25-21, 25-19.
“Sophia was on that night and it just felt great to beat them,” Lund said. “I trust her to get me the perfect ball every time and that night she couldn’t miss.”
The value of the win was magnified on Nov. 5 when the Tologs defeated Chaminade, 25-13, 25-9, 25-10, to clinch a share of the program’s first Mission League title since 2005.
“That was our goal from day one, to win league,” Coffey said. “Obviously we wanted to do well this year, we wanted to go deep in the playoffs, but all that mattered was winning league and we did that.”
The story, though, did not end on Nov. 5, as the Tologs earned the divisional fourth seed and notched victories over Ayala (3-1), Thousand Oaks (3-0) and reigning divisional runner-up El Dorado (3-2) through the first three rounds, with Coffey tallying a career-high 60 assists in the thrilling 23-25, 25-20, 23-25, 25-22, 20-18 triumph over El Dorado in the quarterfinals on Nov. 16.
“Sophia carried us to that win. She got the ball to the hitters and we won because of that,” said Lund, who finished with 33 kills and who was also named to the All-Area first team.
The victory set up Flintridge Sacred Heart with another opportunity versus La Salle in the semifinals.
“I just remember the line before the game extended outside the parking lot,” Coffey said of the home match on Nov. 19. “All these fans came out to see us and all these girls came out to support Flintridge Sacred Heart. At that moment, I knew we were back.”
Again, the Tologs challenged the Lancers like no other team in the division, taking the first set, 25-15, before losing the next three games, 25-21, 25-19, 25-15, which capped the team’s record at 26-5 and marked the furthest postseason advancement since 2007.
“It was sad to lose, but it was an amazing season. The last time we had a really strong team, my sister [Camille Coffey] was here in ,” Coffey said. “Then she and the seniors graduated and that was it. That was it until this year, until now.”