Kawaguchi leads at Sage Hill

On the Sage Hill School volleyball court is where Kent Kawaguchi feels at his best. It makes sense why he invited the entire student body sitting on the bleachers down to the court on Monday.

The junior wasn't in his usual volleyball outfit, shorts and T-shirt. He wore a collared shirt and tie with gray pants to this gathering, nothing too fancy or casual.

Students made their way down to listen to what Kawaguchi had to say on this morning. More than 400 students stood around him in a circle.

Kawaguchi's job was to sell why the students should vote for him as the student body president. Three minutes is all he had for his speech, enough time for Kawaguchi to stand out from the other two candidates.

Dan Thomassen, the volleyball coach, has heard Kawaguchi fire up a group before. This situation was much different. He wasn't talking to just nine teammates.

"A risk," Thomassen said of Kawaguchi's decision "to try and get the whole school to get up on their feet and lead them. It's something that could've gone horribly wrong and he pulled it off and kind of lit a spark in the student body."

Thomassen said Kawaguchi knows what it takes to lead, on and off the court.

He proved it to the school by winning the election the following day.

The message to the student body had a similar tone to the one he has been preaching to his volleyball team all season.

"We got to stick together," Kawaguchi said.

Sage Hill has stuck together en route to claiming the program's first Academy League title in four years.

Thomassen said Kawaguchi deserves a lot of the credit for the success at Sage Hill (19-10, 8-1 in league). The position he plays is setter and he runs the team's offense.

"I like being the quarterback of the team," Kawaguchi said.

Thomassen said Kawaguchi is one of the top three setters in Orange County.

That is a saying a lot when Thomassen points out Kawaguchi has only played setter for two years. What he lacks in size, the 6-foot Kawaguchi makes it up with quick feet, smarts, great leadership skills and good hands.

There are times when Kawaguchi uses one of those hands to hammer a shot.

He not only collects 45-plus assists almost every time out, he can record double-digit kill efforts, as well, as was the case last week. He averaged 10 kills and 47 assists in Sage Hill's league wins against rival St. Margaret's and Crean Lutheran.

The left hand of Kawaguchi was used to strike the ball down before he arrived at Sage Hill. He came in as an opposite, only to move to setter during his freshman year after the starting setter injured his arm.

"There was probably like eight guys on our team," Kawaguchi said. "[Thomassen] goes, 'All right. You're going to have to set.' I started setting. I really liked it."

Kawaguchi is glad he switched from opposite to setter because it has allowed him to stand out in high school and on the club level.

He said setter suits him perfectly with the Lightning and on his club team, the Balboa Bay Volleyball Club.

"It would've been difficult to play at such a high level for Balboa as an opposite [because of my size]," said Kawaguchi, who's the third shortest player on the team.

Last summer, he helped the under-16 boys' team to the open division title at the USA Volleyball Junior National Championships. The next title he wants to win is with the Lightning.

Bringing home Sage Hill's first CIF Southern Section boys' volleyball title will be tough. Sage Hill is ranked seventh in Division 4.

"There could be teams in our division that are more talented than us, but we haven't seen them yet," said Thomassen, who understands what needs to happen to be a section champion.

He led the girls' volleyball team to a section title in the fall. Kawaguchi has used that to push the boys.

"Kent brought up [to the boys] that there were aspects of how the girls handled themselves in big matches," Thomassen said. "Even though they're guys, they actually look [to] the girls for motivation. It seems kind of new that guys are more willing to listen to girls, but a champion is a champion.

"Kent brought that up … that our girls did what it took to win, not necessarily being the favorite in all their matches."

david.carrillo@latimes.com

Twitter: @DCPenaloza

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Kent Kawaguchi

Born: Nov. 22, 1994

Hometown: Huntington Beach

Height: 6-foot

Weight: 153 pounds

Sport: Boys' volleyball

Year: Junior

Coach: Dan Thomassen

Favorite food: Fried rice

Favorite movie: "Rush Hour"

Favorite athletic moment: "Beating SCVC for the first time in the [semifinals of the USA Volleyball Junior National Championships] and going on to win the gold medal [in the under-16 open division]."

Week in review: Kawaguchi averaged 47 assists, 10 kills and four service aces in Sage Hill's two Academy League wins.

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