SOUTH PASADENA — For the first time in the last 37 years, the Burbank High School girls' volleyball program begins a new season with the title of defending Pacific League champions.
But the Bulldogs' defense of that championship will have to wait until next week when they open league play against Arcadia, with whom they split last year's title.
The first order of business to open the new season was a tough nonleague matchup on the road against South Pasadena, which sits just outside the top 10 in the Division II-A rankings.
When it was said and done, it was the host Tigers who took care of business, sweeping a Burbank squad dealing with numerous injuries and many new faces, 25-11, 25-23, 25-13, on Thursday evening.
"You want to play tough teams because that makes you a better team," Burbank Coach Sarah Brown said. "[South Pasadena] was a good team and I don't think we were ready for that."
Game one was brief affair, lasting just over 15 minutes and ending with a 14-point win for South Pasadena (2-0). The second game was a different story and saw Burbank (0-1) hang with the Tigers.
"I think we started to see what we messed up on in game one, and so we tried to fix it in game two," Bulldog junior Rose Cowart said. "We did more blocking, more defense, better serving and just played a better game second game."
The Bulldogs forged a two-point lead late in the second, after trailing most of the way, when Sara Treadway appeared ready to set a teammate but instead pushed the ball over for a winner and an 18-16 advantage. The Tigers took back the lead, but Burbank tied the game at 21 when Ashlyn Edwards finished the longest rally of the match, which saw some spectacular defense from both sides, with a kill into the back court. However, South Pasadena scored the next three points and then held off Burbank for the win.
"I just told them they deserved to be on the court and they should play like that," Brown said of her message to her team after game one. "I think a lot of high school sports is mental and you can either psyche yourself out or psyche out your opponent."
Game three saw the home team take charge with an early 8-0 run, after which they never trailed again. The final point came on a Tiger ace that floated over the net and dropped in the middle of Burbank's lines of defense to end the contest.
Throughout the match, Burbank struggled with the outside hitting and blocking of South Pasadena's Claire Kieffer-Wright, who in addition to being a volleyball powerhouse also won the CIF State Track and Field individual championship in girls' high jump last year. The junior, who towered above the other players on Thursday, was dominant, finishing with 13 kills and nine blocks.
"[Kieffer-Wright] is a great player," Brown said. "She hits well, she plays defense, she blocks, so that's tough. I think we had moments of slowing her down."
In addition to having to deal with Kieffer-Wright, Burbank played its first match without the services of a number of key contributors who were out due to injury, including two in the last two weeks.
"It just puts a strain on everyone that is healthy," Brown said of the effect of the rash of injuries. "It means there is no rest for them and there isn't much depth on the bench."
The Bulldogs will play next, once again on the road, Tuesday at Canyon Country Canyon, as they look to get on track for the new season with their first win.
"I think we have a few things we need to clean up and get back to the basics and start there fresh: blocking, passing, defense," Cowart said. "But overall, we know what we need to work on."