Head of the Family

The feeling around the Holy Family volleyball program is that this could be the year.

For Gaels setter Rebecca Sanchez, it simply has to be.

As one of just two seniors on the Holy Family roster, it's now or never for Sanchez to be a part of a Horizon League-championship season and a deep CIF playoff run.

Fortunately for Sanchez, the Gaels appear to have their best shot in years to accomplish both.

And, the Gaels, in turn, have been quite fortunate to have Sanchez on board.

"I just think that for her it's going to be that maturity [that leads us]," Holy Family Coach Robert Bringas says. "She knows this is her last year, this is it. She understands what her leadership goal is as a captain of the team and that's a benefit and a plus for this group as a whole.

"They know who their captain is and who their go-to person has to be."

As both a captain and a setter — which itself is a role of direction and authority on the court — Sanchez's position of leadership is twofold.

She's stepped up big in both areas, recording 217 assists and 20 aces, both team highs, and 81 digs to get the Gaels off to a 6-4 start with a 2-0 mark in league and also emerging as the strong voice on the court that the Gaels needed.

"I understand why she's captain," junior outside hitter Ashlee Sandoval says. "She's been trying her hardest to be a louder voice, help out and show that she's being a leader. She's been showing leadership since summer and she's gotten better. Instead of letting us do our mistakes, she actually tells us what we're doing wrong and during the games she talks it up more."

Holy Family has qualified for the playoffs the last five seasons, but never finished higher than second in league during the run and suffered first-round playoff losses each of the last two seasons.

There's still plenty of volleyball to be played this year, but after winning their last three matches by sweep, including a triumph over longtime nemesis and defending league champion Alverno on Sept. 30, the Gaels are feeling confident about their prospects of reaching the next level.

"I really want to get past at least the second round of the playoffs," Sanchez says. "Coach is always telling us, it's one thing to go to CIF and lose in the first round. That doesn't really mean anything. But to be in the top 30 or top 24 or however many teams [in CIF], that would mean something.

"I really want to push this team to our limit because I think we have a lot of potential to go far in the playoffs."

This offseason, the Gaels welcomed back Coach Bringas, who led the team to the second round of the playoffs in each of the final two years of his previous stint in 2006-07.

Although he hadn't coached her as a varsity player, Sanchez remained one of the few links to the program Bringas had left behind.

"She had a lot of raw skill coming in, her hands were decent, but she just needed kind of that work at this level to push her forward," says Bringas, who recalls Sanchez as a freshman who used to practice with his varsity squad.

It was at that time, that Sanchez got a sense of what might be possible in the future.

"When I was a freshman [practicing with the varsity team], I couldn't wait to be a senior and have a team like this for my own," Sanchez says.

Bringas says Sanchez was wavering between abandoning setting to become a defensive specialist or libero during her freshman year, but was inspired by the Gaels' varsity setter at that time, Yna Rodriguez.

"She was like my idol, she was the best setter I've ever seen," Sanchez says of Rodriguez. "I would mimic her and tried to follow in her footsteps. After she left, people were telling me, 'You're the new Yna.'"

Sanchez took over as varsity setter last season and helped the Gaels finish runner-up in league after a third-place finish the previous year.

By the time Bringas returned this season, Sanchez had grown into a strong setter and a pillar of the team.

"We talked on and off throughout the year before I came back," said Bringas, who also coaches Sanchez in the San Gabriel Starlings volleyball club. "She was one of the factors that made my choice [to return] easier. I at least had that as a solid position."

Happy to see her old coach return, Sanchez says the faster tempo he's installed has helped the team flourish.

"It's a different team this year," Sanchez says. "It's just a lot better with new coaching, we're running new plays and everything is at a faster pace."

Another difference from past seasons is the position of power the Gaels currently enjoy in league, having knocked off the Jaguars in convincing fashion to emerge as the front runner.

Sanchez recorded 22 assists and seven digs in that match, while spreading the ball around, as six different Gaels recorded kills in the win.

"It was an amazing feeling, I even teared up after the game," Sanchez said. "I thought to myself, 'Wow, we have a shot to win league this year!'"

And, she's not alone in her optimism.

"We've just had some spectacular teams in our league," Bringas said, "but I think [this year] we're looking like the team to beat.

"Our goal this year was not only to get league or to get into playoffs, but to win a first-round match. That's something that I want them to experience. I'm confident we have a good enough team to move up to that next level if not even a couple more rounds."

In order to reach that goal, the Gaels will continue to rely on Sanchez, who has shown a knack for reading opposing defenses and has developed a strong synergy with Sandoval.

"Her sets are really consistent," says Sandoval, who leads the team with 86 kills. "Since I'm used to playing with her, I get used to her sets."

Adds Bringas: "[As far as] her floor leadership, I think she has a good control of the team as a whole on the court and off the court. Her setting choices are improving. One of the things I preach is looking through that net and seeing where we have the better opportunity to get a kill from. She's looking a lot more through that net and really focusing on where we have advantages. …[She's] being more strategic where she sets, her set tempos and also just demanding the passes. That kind of control as a setter, you need to have that."

The next few weeks will show just how far Holy Family has come. But it's clear to see how far Sanchez has progressed and that she feels it's her time now.

"I feel like I've grown as far as being a leader," Sanchez says. "I know how to handle my team more and what to say to everybody. I've matured."

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