It was a common game plan at Pasadena Poly boys' volleyball matches the past four seasons. Hand the ball to opposite hitter Michael Saeta and odds were his thunderous jump-serve would be accurate and turn into something positive for the Panthers.
The 6-foot-5 Saeta proved to be an intimidating force for Poly. Besides his serving, Saeta could pound a ball for a kill or make a picture-perfect pass to a teammate to keep a rally going. The senior outside hitter made his teammates better while sporting a calm demeanor during a match.
It looked relatively easy for Saeta, but he's still learning each day about the finer techniques of the sport.
"I've always wanted to find ways to grow as a player since my freshman year," said the UC Irvine-bound Saeta, who finished his senior season with 536 kills, 218 digs, 89 aces and 45 blocks. "It's a great sport to be a part of, but I still need to find ways to improve my overall game before I head off to college."
Saeta received plenty of recognition with a handful of postseason accolades after helping lead the Panthers to the CIF Southern Section Division V quarterfinals. He was named the All-CIF Division V Player of the Year, along with being selected the Prep League's co-Most Valuable Player and the co-most valuable player of the inaugural San Gabriel Valley All-Star Game.
Saeta's staggering statistics and overall dominance made him one of the top players across Southern California and led to him being named the All-Area Boys' Volleyball Player of the Year, as voted on by the sports writers and editors of the Pasadena Sun, Glendale News-Press, Burbank Leader and La Cañada Valley Sun.
"I tried to go out there and play with confidence and help my teammates be confident," said Saeta, who contributed 23 kills in a quarterfinal loss at Viewpoint on May 10. "We had a great team to be around and I tried to capitalize in different situations and my teammates did the same thing for me."
Saeta was a go-to threat that other teams didn't always possess in head-to-head meetings.
He immediately impressed Poly first-year Coach Mark Mina.
"You can see just how passionate he is about volleyball," Mina said. "In his mind, he knew he would go on to play in college and volleyball is his life.
"From a hitting standpoint, he scared a lot of the teams we faced. He's our go-to guy and he had great court awareness because he had the ability to know where everybody on the court needed to be and what needed to get done."
He averaged six kills and 2.4 digs per game for the Panthers, who finished 18-11, 6-2 in league for second place behind divisional champion Chadwick.
Saeta played setter during his freshman and sophomore campaigns before being shifted to outside hitter for the remainder of his stint with the Panthers. He made a smooth transition and received plenty of tips from his father, Dave, who played outside hitter and setter at Stanford.
"My first two years were about adapting," said Saeta, who recorded 10 kills and 13 assists to lead the Private All-Star Team to a 25-19, 25-18, 30-28 victory against the Public All-Stars on June 9 at Caltech University's Braun Gym in the San Gabriel Valley All-Star game. "You try to get better and take your game to the next level.
"If it weren't for my dad, I probably wouldn't have played volleyball. He's had a big impact on me and was always very supportive. That's motivated me a lot and he showed me the respect you need to have for the game itself."
Opposing coaches would often center their game plan around defending against Saeta. Among those was Flintridge Prep Coach Sean Beattie.
Flintridge Prep faced rival Pasadena Poly three times this season with the Panthers winning each match.
"I saw him enough," Beattie joked. "The thing I hate about him the most is that he's a nice kid. Some of the best players go out there and they have a chip on their shoulders, but you have to like him because he's nice and respectful.
"In my opinion, he's the best all-around player to come out of the Prep League in the 14 years I've been coaching. He's a great passer and defender. He's smart and can hit the ball in different directions. There were no weaknesses that we could find. He will be a very good Division I volleyball player."
Saeta would like nothing more than to prove Beattie correct as he will join an Irvine squad fresh off winning an NCAA championship against USC.
"I believe I will have some great opportunities ahead for me at Irvine," Saeta said. "They are the defending champion and have great team chemistry and I want to add to that.
"Again, it all comes down to me finding ways to keep improving."