Karen Andrews is hardly an elitist.
The San Gabriel High senior earns praise from volleyball coaches and teammates for her play on the court and the upbeat way she carries out the simplest assignments without complaint or argument.
But in July, Andrews was keeping some elite company after she was identified as one of the most promising young volleyball players in the United States.
Andrews was one of only 36 girls from across the nation who were invited to try out for the U.S. National Junior Elite team, a program for women 18 and under that serves as a training ground for future Olympians.
Andrews participated in a weeklong camp in Colorado Springs, Colo., but did not make the final 12-player roster. However, the skills she improved during the tryout and four days of specialized instruction have helped Andrews raise her game to new heights.
The 5-foot-9 outside hitter has led San Gabriel to a 10-1 record this season. The Matadors entered the week 6-0 in the Foothill League.
“She really shines as a leader and brings all of us up,” Amy Farer said. “Her skill has improved, and that helps us all look better.”
Like former San Gabriel standouts Rachel Norris and Annette Bernardo--both of whom played at Pacific 10 Conference schools--Andrews probably will be playing at a four-year college next season.
“She’s one of the best athletes that we have ever had in the program,” said San Gabriel Coach Larry Kanow, who has guided the Matadors to 10 league championships in 11 seasons. “She’s really had to work her way up the ladder in terms of skills, and she’s only halfway there. In college, she’s going to be a tremendous force.”
Unlike most top high school volleyball players, some of whom have been playing year-round at the club level for five or six years, Andrews has limited experience. This is only her fourth year playing the sport. She will begin her third club season in December when she plays for the San Gabriel Valley Volleyball Club.
“I still have a lot of things I can be learning and improving in,” Andrews said. “I haven’t hit that peak yet. I still have a ways to go. To play at a high level in college, I have to improve everything.”
Andrews, 17, arrived at San Gabriel as an accomplished pitcher in softball and a forward in soccer and has earned all-league recognition in those sports for the last three years.
Volleyball was another story. Andrews didn’t know a dink from a doorknob. She tried out for the San Gabriel High freshman team at the urging of friends.
It did not take long for Kanow to realize he had another talented player.
“We really don’t get many kids that have experience when they get here,” Kanow said. “But it was obvious Karen was a good athlete and that she was going to pick up the game quickly.”
As Andrews learned basic volleyball skills at the freshman level, the San Gabriel varsity charged to the Foothill League championship and the Southern Section 3-A title.
Andrews moved up to the varsity as a sophomore. She was a starter by mid-season, but was still unsure of herself.
“I was overmatched,” she said. “I was still kind of short and young. Most of the other players knew what they were doing, so I just kind of watched and tried to pick things up.”
Andrews’ progress accelerated when, at the suggestion of Kanow, she joined a club team following the high school season. She refined her skills during intense practices and games against some of the best age-group players in Southern California. When she returned to San Gabriel for her junior season, she was a different player.
“I was able to read things a lot easier--weaknesses in defenses and things like that,” she said.
Last summer, Andrews played for the San Gabriel Valley Volleyball Club, which finished ninth at the Junior Olympics in Austin, Tex. She passed the initial tryout for the elite team in Texas and was summoned to Colorado for the final phase of the selection process.
The candidates practiced three times a day for three days.
“I was pretty nervous,” Andrews said. “I didn’t have a very good day the first day, and I think the girls they were looking for were a little more versatile. The people who made the team were taller than I was, and they could hit outside (and) middle and (also) set.”
Andrews spent the final four days in Colorado working on her passing, setting and hitting. She returned to San Gabriel with even more confidence and is helping the Matadors make another run at the playoffs.
Most observers agree, however, that Andrews’ best is yet to come.
“Some girls peak out when they are juniors or seniors, but Karen is still improving,” said Art Camarillo, director of the San Gabriel Valley Volleyball Club. “This girl is still climbing in her potential.
“She’s coachable, and that’s what makes her even better. She knows she still can get better.”