Guards looking to continue reign

There are always high expectations at Bellarmine-Jefferson High when it comes to girls' volleyball.

The past few years, the Guards have emerged as the premier program in the city, winning league championships and making deep CIF Southern Section playoff runs.

Last season, Bell-Jeff continued its dynasty in the Santa Cruz League by securing its fifth straight title. In addition, the Guards advanced to the Division IVAA semifinals, losing to No. 1-seeded Hemet, 25-16, 25-11, 25-14.

In 2009, the Guards advanced to the first CIF Southern Section championship in program history. Unfortunately for Bell-Jeff, it fell in the title contest, 25-22, 25-23, 25-23.

This season, Bell-Jeff is already garnering its share of respect, as the team is ranked No. 2 — behind top-ranked Hemet — in the Division IVA preseason poll.

Along with Bell-Jeff, the other three local teams — Burroughs, Burbank and Providence — qualified for the playoffs in 2010.

Here is a look at how the teams are shaping up.

BELLARMINE-JEFFERSON¿

The Guards (17-7 last season) have their share of returning talent from last season's group, but the team did lose some starters who transferred.

"We did lose some key players, including our starting setter," Coach Miguel Segura said. "And breaking in a new setter is always tough. But we have some transfers of our own and we have a big addition from the basketball team who should help us out."

The program's most potent returning weapon is senior Jocelyn Cervantes, who has been a driving force for Bell-Jeff for three seasons.

Cervantes, who has made a name for herself with her powerful kills and deceptive serve, put up monster numbers for Bell-Jeff in 2010, earning a second All-CIF Southern Section award as well as being named the Santa Cruz Player of the Year. Along with 317 kills and a 52% kill percentage, Cervantes also had 44 aces, 22 blocks, 165 digs and 30 assists.

In her three year-career at Bell-Jeff, Cervantes has tallied 731 kills and 166 aces.

"Being a senior, she's ready to go," Segura said of Cervantes. "She knows that this is her senior year and it's her last chance to do something at Bell-Jeff."

Another key returner is junior outside hitter Taryn Nelson. Last season, Nelson had 169 kills, a 42% kill percentage, 57 aces and 103 digs to earn all-league first-team honors.

One of the new additions is junior middle Mirah Bankhead, a 6-foot-1 transfer from Idaho. Segura said he expects her to be a force at the net.

Sophomore Amanda Maalouf, who is fresh off of helping the Guards' softball team advance to a first-ever CIF Southern Section championship contest, takes over the setting duties.

A new edition to the squad is senior middle Jasmine Smith. Smith is an All-CIF standout basketball player who has helped the Guards win state, Southern Section and league championships.

"She just has so much athletic ability," Segura said of the 6-0 Smith. "With her and Mirah in the middle, those two are just blocking machines."

Segura said he expects his team to fully contend for its sixth league crown.

BURROUGHS¿

Under Coach Edwin Real, the Indians (16-6) placed second in the Pacific League behind champion Arcadia in 2010.

Burroughs does return its share of players from last season after losing three seniors to graduation. The team also lost the services of senior outside hitter Kathy Henry, who decided not to return for her final season, and is instead competing for the school's girls' tennis team.

A season ago, Henry averaged 10 kills a match and was an all-league second-team selection.

"We might be a little bit rusty, but we've been coming along," Real said. "This last week has been really good for us."

A key returner is senior four-year varsity player Megan Stephenson, a booming outside hitter who averaged 15 kills during league play to earn first-team honors.

"Megan will definitely have to pull her own, but we have some other hitters in the front row that will hopefully take some pressure off of her shoulders," Real said. "But if I was scouting us, I would put someone on Megan."

The Indians also have returning all-leaguers in senior setter Catarina Emerson, a first-team pick, and senior second-teamer Victoria Santos, who is a libero. Also returning to give the team more depth is senior middle Katie Dick, senior outside hitter Tessa Dudley, sophomore setter Keana Figuroa and senior outside hitter Angie Rojas.

With the absence of Henry, Real has moved junior Laura Howard from the outside to the middle, hoping to give the team some strength up front.

As far as league is concerned, Real said he expects the biggest competition to come from the Apaches.

"That's what we're looking at," said Real, who led the Indians to a league title in 2007. "They are always strong and they always find a way to be up there. We have a lot of kids back and we have a lot of experience, but still you have to go up against Arcadia."

PROVIDENCE¿

The Pioneers (8-12) are perennial CIF Southern Section qualifiers. In 2010, the squad placed third in the Liberty League.

Providence did lose its share of impact players from a year ago. However, the team does have some solid returners and Coach Josh Eggleston is pleased with the quality of young talent in the program.

"It's kind of a mixed bag this season," Eggleston said. "We graduated eight, which is a lot. This year we will have six seniors, so some of our younger players are definitely going to contribute. I really like our youth, and I really like the players we have coming in."

Heading the group of returners are senior outside hitter Thalia Alvarez and junior setter Janel Adraneda. Alvarez is in her fourth varsity season as a starter and Adraneda has two years experience under her belt.

"Thalia has been with us for three years, so she knows the offense and she knows the philosophy of what we're trying to accomplish," Eggleston said. "And Janel also has the experience and she has worked hard during the offesaeon and during the summer."

Also returning is senior libero April Leyva.

Players Eggleston expects to also contribute are senior outside hitters Gian-Mari Llaguno and Jackie Brewer and junior outside hitter Bea Yosuico, a transfer from Alemany.

Newcomers who could see playing time are senior middles Danielle Ricciuti and Jessica Mendoza and freshman setter Jenny Nardoni.

In Liberty League competition, Eggleston said Viewpoint should be a tough opponent as usual.

"I feel that we should match up well with Buckley for that second spot in league," he said. "I look for us to be in that top-two conversation."

BURBANK¿

The Bulldogs (14-6) placed third in the Pacific League last season, continuing the program's upswing in recent years under the direction of Coach Sarah Brown. In 2009, the squad qualified for the playoffs for the first time in eight years.

With the program continuing to do well, Brown said she made sure that his year's team is well aware of the direction she wants it to go.

"I made that very clear to them," said Brown, a former multi-sport athlete at Burbank. "The returners have done a really good job at setting the tone and letting the younger players know what is expected of them."

Continuing the upswing will likely get tougher this season for the Bulldogs, as they lost a large number of players to graduation.

"We lost something like seven players from last year," Brown said. "That's a pretty big chunk for sure. We have players who have moved up from the [junior varsity], and it's quite a jump to the varsity level. But we have some good athletes and they are learning."

Among the group of returners is the team's only senior, middle Reilly Brennan, one of the squad' captains who Brown said she will look to provide¿ leadership for the young squad.

The other team captain is junior middle Stephanie Eskander.

Also returning is junior setter Tyler Brooks, who learned under former standout Sarah Tubert, who is playing in college, and junior libero Stefanie Lin.

Brown said she expects good things from newcomers Jamie Gonzalez, a junior outside hitter, sophomore outside hitter Juliana Marx and junior setter Alyssa Leonen.

"In league we always expect to be competing for a playoffs spot," Brown said. "I think Burroughs is going to be tough this year and always Arcadia and CV. But also Glendale has improved a lot. I expect the games to be closer this year."

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