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GIRLS’ VOLLEYBALL : For El Modena, Persistence Pays Off

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Craig Tefertiller, girls’ volleyball coach at El Modena High, used his powers of persuasion when Marni Hichborn and Melizza Benitez tried out for his team three years ago.

He convinced Hichborn and her parents that she should continue to play despite struggling with grades during her eighth-grade year. She improved her grades, and started as a freshman on the varsity.

And he persuaded his assistant coaches not to cut Benitez, a newcomer to the sport, from the freshman-sophomore team. By the end of the season, she was on the varsity.

Three years later, Hichborn and Benitez are showing why Tefertiller was so adamant about having them on his team.

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After leading the Vanguards to a 20-1 record and the Southern Section 3-A finals as juniors last year, they return along with three other starters on one of Orange County’s top teams. The Vanguards are ranked second behind La Habra in the Southern Section 3-A preseason poll.

Both players remember well the pounding they took during La Habra’s three-game sweep in last year’s final. And they realize there’s only one way to improve on the 20-1 record--finish undefeated.

“If we got bumped off early in CIF this year it would be discouraging,” said Benitez, a 5-foot-9 setter who’s in her third full season on the varsity. “If we lost in the second round or something, I would probably be crying.”

Veterans of three section playoffs, Hichborn and Benitez hope they can avoid an early exit this season.

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“We have a lot more confidence this year because we know what we’re capable of doing,” said Hichborn, a 6-2 middle blocker and a four-year starter. “Last year, Melizza and I were named captains, even though we were only juniors. That was a lot of responsibility, having to make sure everyone was up and ready to play.”

As freshmen, they helped the Vanguards to their first section final, where they lost to Sunny Hills. They lost in the quarterfinals as sophomores.

The Vanguards were a surprising team last season. With only one senior starter, they played the underdog role all the way to the championship game.

But that’s not the case this season.

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“People have put pressure on them this year,” Tefertiller said. “I told Marni after her freshman year that making the finals doesn’t happen very often.

“Then we went last year, and now everyone expects us to be there again. But I think they’re handling it (the pressure) well.”

Both players are attracting the attention of college scouts, yet neither has made a commitment.

Hichborn, who has Olympic aspirations, has the size and blocking ability to attract interest from USC, Texas, Iowa, Washington, Washington State, Colorado State and Oregon State.

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Benitez, who Tefertiller calls El Modena’s best female athlete, has been contacted by Colorado State, Nevada, Utah and Oregon State.

Benitez, who’s a triple jumper and basketball player, was hoping for a college basketball scholarship. She averaged 10 points and 11 rebounds last season, but realized volleyball was her best avenue to college.

Tefertiller said Benitez matured as a volleyball player last season, when she was moved from hitter to setter.

“As a sophomore she was undeveloped,” he said. “As a junior, she just kicked in there.”

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Benitez and Hichborn were named co-MVPs of the Century League last season. Both were All-Southern Section and all-county selections.

“But both are real unselfish and team-oriented players,” Tefertiller said. “They were doing their player profiles for our program, and they never mentioned any of the individual honors, like the co-MVPs, in the profiles. It’s a real nice thing to have kids like them.”

La Habra, two-time Southern Section 3-A and state Division II champions, has only one starter returning--Zrinka Kristich, a 6-5 senior middle blocker who is one of the top prospects in the nation.

The Highlanders, top-ranked in the Southern Section’s 3-A preseason poll, lost five starters to graduation--Missy Clements, a 5-11 middle blocker, Ana Kristich, a 6-1 outside hitter, and Leslie Ferguson, a 6-1 outside hitter, and setter Lisa Almanza.

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“In the summer league, a lot of coaches thought Zrinka had grown,” La Habra Coach Sandy Blumenthal said. “There’s not as much height around her now, so she appears even taller than last year. I just tell the coaches, ‘Yeah, she grew.’ ”

Blumenthal said Zrinka Kristich is undecided if she will play volleyball or basketball in college.

“She’s getting a lot more recruiting letters for basketball,” Blumenthal said. “She’s leaning toward basketball right now.”

Corona del Mar, the defending state Division I and Southern Section 5-A champions, returns five players, but no full-time starters.

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The Sea Kings’ top returner is Charmayne Conley, a 5-8 senior outside hitter who played well off the bench in last year’s playoffs. Other returners are seniors Kristin Coleman, Karin Graves, Kim Smith and junior Allison Englebrecht.

But the Sea Kings will be without their best all-around player, senior setter Kristin Spataro, who still is recovering from knee surgery last February.

Her replacement will be either Caren McKinley, a 5-7 senior who sat out the high school season last year but has played for the Orange County Volleyball Club, or sophomores Kim Coleman or Kristin Campbell.

“We have four sophomores on varsity and we could have as many as three starting,” said Coach Mark Rivadeneyra, who replaced Dale Flickinger last spring. “We could be young, but we should be OK.”

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Newport Harbor’s hopes for a championship were dealt a severe blow when Tara Kroesch, a 5-11 outside hitter and one of the county’s best players, injuring her left knee during a summer tournament.

“She’s an All-Southern Section player,” Newport Harbor Coach Dan Glenn said. “She’s irreplaceable. With her, we’re one of the top three teams in the county. Without her, we’re in the top six or seven.”

Kroesch has been fitted with a knee brace and has been undergoing rehabilitation. Glenn hopes Kroesch will be back in the lineup in a week or two.

“I can’t say if she’ll be back definitely, but we’re trying,” he said.

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Kroesch’s injury leaves Maureen McLaren, a 6-0 middle blocker, as the Sailors’ biggest offensive threat back from last year’s 14-4 team.

The Sailors also feature two of the top freshmen in the county in outside hitter Misty May and middle blocker Melissa Schutz.

May and Schutz led Horace Ensign Jr. High to consecutive undefeated seasons. May is the daughter of Butch May, one of the top beach players in the area and a member of the 1968 Olympic team.

Notes

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Newport Harbor’s Misty May and Los Alamitos senior Kirstin Laird won beach tournaments together at Capistrano Beach and Santa Barbara this summer. . . . Valencia returns three starters from last season’s Orange League championship team that was 17-2, including Amy Tamblyn, a 6-foot middle blocker. . . . Former Corona del Mar Coach Charlie Brande has joined Edison’s staff as a varsity assistant. . . . Shawn Knutson replaced John Reid as coach at Esperanza. Reid, who led the Aztecs to four Empire League titles, resigned in July to become an assistant women’s coach at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash. . . . Ben Lefrancois, a former Marina player, is the new Marina girls’ coach. He replaces Dennis Creighton, who retired last year after 10 seasons. . . . Mike Hurlbut, a former assistant at Capistrano Valley, replaces Oz Simmons as coach at Dana Hills.

Girls’ Volleyball

Top Teams

Capistrano Valley, Corona del Mar, Cypress, Edison, El Modena, El Toro, Esperanza, Fountain Valley, Irvine, Laguna Beach, La Habra, Marina, Newport Harbor, San Clemente, Santa Margarita, Sunny Hills, University, Valencia. Small schools--Capistrano Valley Christian, Whittier Christian.

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Top Players

Melizza Benitez (El Modena), Allyson Carpenter (Capistrano Valley), Charmayne Conley (Corona del Mar), Olivia DiCamilli (Costa Mesa), Christine Garner (Tustin), Julie Greer (Esperanza), Misty Hartung (Cypress), Marni Hichborn (El Modena), Rachel Hochgesang (Sunny Hills), Zrinka Kristich (La Habra), Tara Kroesch (Newport Harbor), Kelly Kuebler (Los Alamitos), Kirstin Laird (Los Alamitos), Alicia Liniger (Edison), Heather Lowe (Cypress), Misty May (Newport Harbor), Maureen McLaren (Newport Harbor), Karissa Meith (Irvine), Amy Moeller (Mater Dei), Tobi Roquemore (Capistrano Valley), Kori Rosenkranz (Sunny Hills), Tricia Rossman (Marina), Melissa Schutz (Newport Harbor), Tori Scott (Laguna Beach), Jaime Smith (El Toro), Kim Smith (Corona del Mar), Robin Smith (Edison), Lesli Steinert (El Toro), Amy Tamblyn (Valencia), Rachel Wacholder (Laguna Beach).

Important Dates

Sept. 20-21, Orange County Championships; Nov. 21, Southern Section finals; Dec. 7, State finals.

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Notes

Dale Flickinger, who coached Corona del Mar to the state Division I title last year, is compiling the national girls’ rankings for Volleyball Monthly magazine. Flickinger, who replaced Jess Money as the ratings coordinator, rated Capistrano Valley, Corona del Mar and Newport Harbor among his preseason “Elite 30.” He will rank the teams individually after the season begins. . . . La Habra is the top-ranked team in the Southern Section 3-A preseason poll, followed by second-ranked El Modena and fifth-ranked Sunny Hills. In 5-A, Capistrano Valley is third, Corona del Mar fourth, Laguna Beach fifth, El Toro eighth and Newport Harbor ninth. In 4-A, Fountain Valley is ranked third, Edison seventh and Cypress eighth. Capistrano Valley Christian is the top-ranked team in 1-A, with Whittier Christian ranked eighth. Valencia is sixth in the 2-A division, St. Margaret’s is fourth and Liberty Christian sixth in the small schools division.


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