Whitford a versatile threat for Lightning

When Sage Hill School girls' volleyball coach Dan Thomassen compares his star outside hitter Kekai Whitford to Bo Jackson, there is admittedly a bit of a disconnect.

Jackson was known for being a freak athlete, a two-sport star in professional baseball and football in the late 1980s. He was also known for being unstoppable as a running back in the "Tecmo Super Bowl" video game, as well as for making Nike a lot of money with his cross-trainer shoes and famous "Bo Knows" commercials.

Jackson isn't known at all to Whitford, who was born three years after Jackson's last season of Major League Baseball. She said she has never heard of him.

But that doesn't mean the comparison doesn't work. There is the sense that Whitford, a junior who is a three-year varsity starter in both volleyball and soccer at Sage, could really be successful in any sport she chooses.

"She's willing to try everything, and that's so encouraging," Thomassen said. "Coaches get kids who don't want to try a different position or a new sport, but I think that flexibility and kind of sense of adventure is something that we really look for. She works hard in the weight room, and that makes a big difference."

Whitford grew up playing tennis for years as well. She spent her time on the courts at the Marriott in Fashion Island. If she wasn't there, she might be riding horses or hanging out at the Newport Aquatic Center, which was started and is run by her father, Billy, the executive director. Father and daughter also used to play golf together on the weekends.

"I was very active, which I think was very good for my personality," Kekai Whitford said. "I don't like sitting still."

Billy Whitford went to Newport Harbor High, where he was on the 1970 football team that was co-league champions and featured in the recent documentary, "Touchdown Newport." Kekai credits her father for his support. She said she's also learned humility from him, and a desire to help others.

In terms of volleyball, the Daily Pilot Athlete of the Week helps Sage plenty. And that could be true at any position. Her freshman year, she played middle blocker before suffering an abdominal injury. When she came back she was in the back row, where she still helped the Lightning win the CIF Southern Section Division 4-AA title over rival St. Margaret's.

"It definitely was [mixed emotions]," she said. "When I wasn't playing, we beat St. Margaret's over there at their gym, which was the first time we'd done it in a while [six years]. I wasn't playing, so that was kind of hard for me. But, I mean, I was just more proud of the fact that the girls were able to come together so well. Asking Maggie [Danner] to play middle was, I'm sure, hard for her, because she didn't play it and had to get used to a new position and new rotations and everything. I was just really happy that everyone was able to make that change, and still play at a really high level."

Last year, Whitford played opposite hitter. She earned All-CIF Southern Section Division 3-A honors as Sage got back to the CIF title match before losing to the Tartans. And now, she's at outside hitter.

Whitford earned all-tournament team honors in August as the Lightning won the silver division at the prestigious Ann Kang Invitational in Honolulu, Hawaii. The preseason victory was impressive for Sage Hill, the top-ranked team in Division 3-A this season. And the trip to the islands meant a lot to Kekai, whose full first name is Kekaimalu'okalani.

She was born in Honolulu before coming to California as a toddler. Her mother Cathy and younger sister Kawai, 9, moved back to Honolulu just more than a year ago to live with Kekai's grandmother. Billy and Cathy have been divorced since Kekai was 5 years old, she said.

"It's just another reason to go back [to Hawaii] as often as I can," said Kekai Whitford, who lives with her dad in Costa Mesa.

Don't worry, Lightning volleyball fans. She isn't planning to say "aloha" to Hawaii again until December, after the Sage volleyball season is over. The Lightning will need her as they try to capture their third CIF title in program history.

At 5-foot-7, Whitford is a bit undersized as an outside hitter. She smiled when it was brought up, saying she's using every inch that she can.

Her size didn't stop her from pounding down a team-high 25 kills in a big five-set win over JSerra on Sept. 19. It was Sage's first win over JSerra in five years.

Whitford leads the Lightning in kills and digs, Thomassen said, and is second in blocks. She has become a much more patient player.

Her leaping ability also helps. So does just her tenacious nature.

"Not only is she an emotional leader, but she's very steady emotionally," said Thomassen of Whitford, who plays club for Prime Volleyball Club. "She used to be kind of hot and cold. She's gotten much, much better at making sure that she plays at a steady level, but then when we need it she picks up her energy and is sort of injecting energy into the rest of the team. That's something we talk a lot about as a team.

"She just loves the competition. She's one of the most competitive players we've ever had. She loves to fight."

Whitford truly is all about the team. She said she gives a lot of credit to Sage volleyball's captains, including senior liberos Allie Mowrey and Claudia Noto and junior setter Maddy Abbott. Noto also plays lacrosse while Mowrey, like Whitford, is a standout soccer player. Both were first-team All-Academy League selections last year.

On the pitch, Whitford also has earned Daily Pilot Newport-Mesa Dream Team honors each of the last two years. She played goalie her sophomore year because the team didn't have one, and provided memorable moments in the Lightning's CIF wild-card win at Riverside Norte Vista. Whitford scored the game-tying goal in the 79th minute, before making three saves in the ensuing shootout won by the Lightning.

There's that versatility again.

"There's probably three or four — or eight — other sports that she would excel at," Thomassen said. "She'd be a good basketball player, she'd be an amazing track athlete. Her athleticism is pretty obvious. You can tell, just in the way she plays, that she's got a lot of power."

Sage (12-4), which opened league with a sweep of Calvary Chapel Downey on Tuesday and another sweep of Whitney on Friday, wants to take back the Academy League title. In the way are Crean Lutheran and St. Margaret's, teams ranked No. 4 and 5, respectively, in Division 3-A.

If the Lightning can do it, they'll rely on plenty of plays by their own personal Bo Jackson.

"Wow, great compliment," Whitford said upon hearing about Jackson and her coach's comparison. "I really enjoy sports. I'm not the best at basketball, but if someone wants to play, I'll go try to shoot a basket. I'll probably miss, but I'll try. I've grown up doing something every afternoon, being active a lot. I think that definitely makes a difference, how I grew up and my personality."

Jackson's autobiography was simply titled, "Bo Knows Bo."

Kekai definitely knows Kekai.

Kekai Whitford

Born: Aug. 8, 1997

Hometown: Costa Mesa

Height: 5-foot-7

Sport: Volleyball

Year: Junior

Coach: Dan Thomassen

Favorite food: Spaghetti

Favorite movie: "Blue Crush"

Favorite athletic moment: Helping Sage Hill girls' volleyball win the CIF Southern Section Division 4-AA title in 2011.

Week in review: Whitford had a combined 45 kills and 46 digs as Sage Hill, ranked No. 1 in CIF Southern Section Division 3-A, earned five-set victories over Beckman and JSerra.

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