After a long absence--by Royal High girls' volleyball standards--the Highlanders appear ready to make it back to the top of the Marmonte League.
And perhaps farther than that.
Courtney Guerra, a 5-foot-11 outside hitter who pounds the ball, and Teresa Russell, a 6-1 middle blocker who's tough at the net, give the Highlanders reason to believe they can win their first outright league title since 1991.
Seniors Toni-Ann Merendino, a 5-6 outside hitter with flawless passing skills, and Patti Myszkowski, a 5-10 opposite hitter, also are back.
"They all know the program, they understand the system," Royal Coach Bob Ferguson said.
They also understand that Westlake, which had a dominant two-year run as the Marmonte League champion, lost six starters to graduation.
Royal, which finished in a four-way tie for the league title with Westlake, Agoura and Thousand Oaks in 1995, lost all four of its matches against Westlake the last two seasons.
"In the back of our heads we were like, 'Can we really do this?' " Guerra said. "I think that tore our team down."
The Highlanders added setter Michaela Skelly, a 5-8 junior transfer from Agoura who has the edge over Annette Wilson for the starting spot.
Three underclassmen will also contribute: Amanda Kiser, a 5-11 junior opposite hitter; Andreja Balach, a 5-11 junior middle blocker and Carly Huffman, a 6-1 sophomore middle blocker.
Seven Royal players are 5-10 or taller, another reason the Highlanders have a chance to win their first Southern Section title since 1989.
"Depth-wise, it's unequivocally the best team I've ever had," said Ferguson, starting his 15th season. "I've got 10, maybe even 12 players who could start for anybody."
That's a good start for any team.
Other teams to watch in the region:
* Harvard-Westlake: The Wolverines get back Anne Jakle, a 6-1 outside hitter who missed most of last season with an ankle injury. Freshman Courtney Schultz, a 5-11 middle blocker, will start for the Wolverines, who have won six consecutive Mission League titles and 59 of their last 60 league matches.
* Calabasas: The Coyotes are loaded. Not only do they have outside hitter Brooke Niles, but they picked up transfer Maryam Ahmadian, a 5-11 middle blocker from Chaminade. Hitters Carina Nusinov, Lindsey Higgins and Laura Harrison are all 5-10 or taller.
* Granada Hills: The Highlanders lost in the City Section 4-A Division quarterfinals last year, but could reach the final this season. Senior Michelle Ferrucci is one of the best middle blockers in Southern California.
* Flintridge Sacred Heart: Megan Hosp, who is being recruited, and Brynne Young, a strong leaper with a powerful arm swing, give the Tologs plenty of skill at outside hitter.
* Village Christian: Errin Benesh set a school record with 537 kills last season, making the Crusaders the Alpha League favorites.
* Westlake: The Warriors lost eight seniors from last year's team, but are helped by the return of 5-8 outside hitter Stacey Lee.
Lee's sister, Kristin, plays for Pepperdine and her brother, Jason, plays for Loyola Marymount.
* Saugus: The Centurions finished fourth in the Foothill League last season, but an improved performance is expected thanks to setter Jamie Bolt and 6-foot middle blocker Heather Cessna.
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AT A GLANCE
* THE PROVEN: Royal High 5-foot-11 senior OH Courtney Guerra is the go-to player on the area's best team. Brooke Niles, a 5-8 senior OH, should lead Calabasas far in the playoffs. 6-1 MB Michelle Ferrucci, a Granada Hills senior, is the best player in the City Section. Village Christian 6-1 senior OH-MB Errin Benesh delivered 53 kills in a match last season against Frazier Mountain. Nevada Blonstein, a 5-7 senior S at Notre Dame, has finally put ankle and back problems behind her. Alemany 5-11 senior OH Sasha Hernandez gives the Indians upset potential in the Mission League. Flintridge Sacred Heart 5-9 senior OH Megan Hosp puts plenty of pop on the ball.
* THE PROMISING: Harvard-Westlake S Ashley Julian, a 6-1 junior, is also a formidable blocker. Allison Gorny, a 6-foot MB at Littlerock, is the younger sister of highly recruited standout Chris Gorny. Melody Eckmier, a 6-2 junior, transferred from Van Nuys to Simi Valley and changed positions, from MB to S. Sylmar 5-11 MB Kassy Jimenez was an All-City Section 3-A selection last season as a sophomore. La Reina 6-0 MB Jennifer Ryan is already making waves as a sophomore. Buena junior S Krystal McFarland spent the summer on a youth national team. Paraclete 6-2 senior MB Christine Lambert should help ease the Spirits' transition to the Alpha League.
* FAST FACT: Four teams from the area won sectional championships last season: Westlake in Southern Section Division II-A, Flintridge Sacred Heart in Division IV-AA, Cornerstone Christian in V-A and Poly in City Section 3-A.