When Olivia Carlton moved from Henderson, NV, to Huntington Beach in the summer of 2015, she could not have known how quickly her life was about to change.
At that point, she had only dabbled in recreational volleyball, but she decided upon moving that she wanted to start playing club.
Carlton had little experience in the sport, but one thing she always had going for her was her height.
“I was always tall, even when I was little,” Carlton said. “I was always the tallest one in my class. I think I hit six-foot when I was going into seventh grade.”
Carlton joined Club H, and that is where she found the nucleus of her new life in Southern California. The connections that she now has as a sophomore middle blocker at Huntington Beach High were forged in her early days as a club player.
Jaclyn Sanchez, who has served as Carlton’s setter this high school season and in club, recalled their initial interaction.
“We first met at club tryouts, actually,” Sanchez said. “She was super quiet because she had just moved from Vegas. She came here three years ago, and my mom [Jauna] met her first because she was a coach.
“We always joke around because my mom says, ‘She was my best friend first. I knew her first before you did.’ ”
Sanchez credits volleyball for many of her friendships, but it is remarkable how she gravitated toward, and quickly became close to, one of the rawest talents to show up at her club. After many travels through club, their bond has strengthened, and their connection is evident on the court.
Oilers coach Craig Pazanti coached Carlton and Sanchez at the 16U level last year. The team went undefeated in its qualifiers, in Chicago and Las Vegas, for the 16 USA Girls’ Junior National Championships, which were contested in Detroit in early July.
“We went through both of those qualifying tournaments undefeated,” Pazanti said. “I think [Carlton is] just starting to believe in herself a little bit as an athlete and as a volleyball player, knowing that she was getting her number called late in games pretty much from the beginning of last year.
“We weren’t trying to hide it from everybody. I think even so far this year during the high school season, people are really keying on her, and she’s still being able to perform.”
Carlton has managed to become a force for the Oilers (5-4), despite being unable to participate in one aspect of the sport. A carpal boss on the back of her right wrist prevents her from being able to perform the full serving motion.
“It causes a strain throughout my whole arm because the muscles and the tendons snap over it, so I can’t [pronate]. I can snap. I just can’t go back [recoil].
“The bone restricts it from going that far back.”
At 6-foot-3, Carlton impacts a match in a number of different ways. She has become a threat to put up 15-plus kills in every match from the middle.
“Offensively, she has been really good, but just her ability to change the offense of the other team [helps us],” Pazanti said. “It’s allowed our defense to play really great at some times, too.
“It’s not just when she blocks balls, specifically. It shows the amount of court that she can take up.”
The presence of Carlton alongside 6-foot-2 junior middle blocker Xolani Hodel changes the way that teams attack the Oilers. Carlton had 29 kills and 13 blocks in three pool play matches in the Dave Mohs Memorial Tournament last week.
She also had 17 kills and 6½ blocks to lead the Oilers to a five-set victory over JSerra in the Sunset League vs. Trinity League Showcase on Aug. 29.
Carlton has said in the past that getting a clean block is the best feeling, and she wants to make sure teams cannot avoid her.
“It makes me more motivated because I know that people are trying to go for me or try to hit away from me,” Carlton said. “It makes me want to make more of an impact on the court and kind of make it harder to get away from me.
“It’s not that I need the ball in my hands. It’s just that I like making other people intimated of me. I like the competition. It’s fun.”
Sanchez said that Pazanti teaches his players that volleyball is about more than just your skills. It’s about your connection with your teammates.
Over the past couple of years, Sanchez and Carlton have formed the kind of relationship that has accelerated the growth of both players.
“When she showed up, I don’t think that she knew much about volleyball at the time,” Pazanti said of Carlton. “It was pretty much from scratch when she got to Club H. Truly, the club season last year was kind of a breakout for her where she really started to be confident in her abilities.
“Obviously, coming into the high school season with the familiarity of Jaclyn setting has really helped her progress a lot [more] this year than maybe we would have had.”
Born: Nov. 25, 2002
Hometown: Henderson, NV
Height: 6 feet 3
Weight: 210 pounds
Coach: Craig Pazanti
Favorite food: Burritos with guacamole
Favorite movie: “Mama Mia”
Favorite athletic moment: Carlton’s 16U club team with Club H won its 16U USA qualifying tournament in Chicago last season. She won with high school teammates Jaclyn Sanchez, Sophia Altshluer and Hannah Ledesma on the team.