The La Cañada High girls’ volleyball team had an unexpected turn of events last fall.
As the Spartans team tried to work through the season with a number of injuries,, longtime coach Chris Sullivan departed midway through the campaign.
Since then, La Cañada has hired Laura Browder to lead the team with the hopes of recovering from a forgetful 2018 season.
At Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy, the program will also have a new coach in Hannah Tedrow. For Flintridge Prep, it will be seeking to make the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
Here is a closer look at the teams.
The process of regrouping is simple for the Spartans: developing a winning culture through team bonding.
“I will never compromise culture for talent and I’m just really building a family atmosphere where girls feel loved, believed and celebrated,” Browder said. “I believe winning comes if you have the right culture.”
The usual intense preseason practices were replaced with kickball and dodge-ball games and a group beach trip. The result is a relationship that equates to dating, Browder said jokingly.
Browder brings four years of high school volleyball coaching experience to the program. The new coach previously led Southlands Christian to back-to-back league titles and consecutive quarterfinal appearances in 2016 in the CIF Southern Section Division X playoffs and in 2017 in the Division IX playoffs.
Browder amassed an overall record of 71-43 in her four years at the helm. The Eagles were ranked No. 1 in the Division VIII poll last season.
Since her move to Los Angeles in 2015, Browder also coached the San Gabriel Valley Elite Volleyball and Actyve volleyball clubs.
The Spartans missed the Division III playoffs last year, finishing fourth in the Rio Hondo League with an 11-16 overall record and 5-6 league mark.
The Spartans team is mainly comprised of players that won the Rio Hondo League title in 2017. La Cañada reached the quarterfinals of the Division IV playoffs that year, where it fell to Santa Monica.
“You go in every year expecting to compete for a league title, so I think we’ll be right there in the thick of things with everyone else,” Browder said. “I really like our squad this year and apparently they had a lot of injuries last year, so I think just keeping everyone healthy is going to position us to do well in league.
“Obviously, if you do well in league, it positions you to do well in the playoffs, so I definitely have high expectations for us to go on a playoff run.”
The Spartans are focused on regaining the league title, and Browder is aware of the level of competition they will face in Rio Hondo League opponents Monrovia, San Marino and South Pasadena. To stifle the opposition, La Cañada will use its size advantage as a key to its success.
Browder inherits a team that consists of six seniors on the 14-player roster .
“I’m really driven by legacy,” Browder said. “Every year, I always try to challenge them and ask them what kind of legacy do they want to leave behind, not only as an individual player, but also as a senior class. I’m always highlighting that we have a wonderful group of girls that are fun and talented and they’re big impact players, but we also want them to be leaders on our court and not just talent.”
Among the seniors who have impressed the new coach is setter Alex Gates and senior outside hitter Emily Weirick.
“Alex is such a great setter that it sometimes masks when our passing isn’t well,” Browder said. “She is just really the engine that runs our team, but she’s also this lead-by-example type, but can give you 150% every minute.
“Weirick has this personality of the natural alpha of the team. She’s a very talented volleyball player that does a little bit of both — a fearless leader that keeps our team together and initiates team bonding. I can rave about every senior on the team. Both my middles are hardworking and very tall.”
The roster also includes Spartans soccer player Sam Meyer, whose athleticism will contribute greatly to the team’s success.
A newcomer to the team is freshman Nikki Hughes, who’s 6-foot stature will add depth in the blocking department for the Spartans.
“She is going to be a beast for us the next four years,” Browder said. “She has been part of the San Gabriel Valley Elite One Team. She’s left-handed. She puts the ball down. We’re pretty excited to have her on board.”
In addition to the underclassmen group, Browder will have sophomore returner Olivia Toland as an integral outsider hitter.
FLINTRIDGE SACRED HEART ACADEMY
Things will look a bit different, as the Tologs have brought in Tedrow, who succeeds Ernest Banaag.
Flintridge Sacred Heart finished 25-15, 3-5 in the Mission League for fourth place before falling to San Clemente in the second round of the CIF Southern Section Division II playoffs last season.
Tedrow comes to Flintridge Sacred Heart after spending last season at Westridge.
“Things are going great because we have a group of players who are getting better each day,” Tedrow said. “It will help them when there’s a tough time during a match and they can step up to the challenge and stay hungry.
“We like the group we have and there’s a good core here to help lead the way.”
Flintridge Sacred Heart will be led by junior setter Ellie Lund, junior outside hitter Emma Willingham, sophomore outside hitter Peyton DeJardin and sophomore libero Caitlin Du.
Flintridge Sacred Heart will stay in Division I/II.
Flintridge Prep will look to qualify for the postseason for the first time since 2008. The pieces might be in place for the Rebels to end an 11-year playoff drought.
“It’s a chance for the group we have to step up and show what they can do,” Flintridge Prep coach Sean Beattie said. “We have some players who will be four-year starters and we can surround them with a good group of younger players.
“If we play hard, then we can compete with just about anybody in our league. Pasadena Poly will be a very good team and it can be up for grabs with Chadwick, Westridge, Mayfield and us.”
Flintridge Prep went 12-8, 5-7 for fifth place in the Prep League last season. The Rebels will shift from Division VI to V.
The Rebels return senior outside hitter Jada Gritton, senior setter Ani Bernardi, senior libero Ellen Chang and senior middle blocker Kaitlyn Chen.