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Boys’ Volleyball Preview: La Cañada’s success strategy is simple, but will take time

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Sang Min Lee is a key returner this season for the La Cañada High boys’ volleyball team.
(Tim Berger \ Staff Photographer)

La Cañada High boys’ volleyball coach Rebecca Sanchez has a simple vision for the team in her second season in charge, and all she has to do is groom the proper setter and get her squad to build the right team chemistry to one-up her debut season.

St. Francis and Flintridge Prep both qualified for the CIF Southern Section playoffs last season, but only the Golden Knights made it past the first round.

Here is a closer look at the teams.

LA CAÑADA

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After graduating seven seniors, three of which were named to the All-Rio Hondo League first-team, and a taste of the postseason, Sanchez said the key to La Cañada’s success is based around the team’s skills and talent mixed with formulating an unbreakable bond.

“I think, individually, my players, skill-wise, are very good,” Sanchez said. “Individually, they’re very talented, they’re very athletic and they have all the potential in the world. But it is our setter that really needs to bring it all together and I think that’s one of the really big things we need to work on.

“I’m so excited. This is a great team. Just looking at the potential that we have from these past few games, I just can’t wait until it all comes together and they finally click. I know we can do some real damage, like we did last year.”

The Spartans finished 2018 in a four-way tie in a five-team Rio Hondo League and concluded the season with a 12-16 record and 5-3 mark in league.

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La Cañada’s finish was good enough for a spot in the CIF Southern Section Division III playoffs, where it upset neighborhood rival Flintridge Prep in five games in the first round.

League competition with the likes of Division IV-ranked San Marino, South Pasadena, Monrovia and Gabrielino, should keep the team on its toes.

Sanchez said constant playing time will help the Spartans create chemistry along the way, but it all starts with moving senior Sang Min Lee to the setter position after playing libero last season.

Min Lee will fill the shoes of graduated setter and league first-team honoree Nolan Sheowy.

“It’s just really focusing on our setter side,” Sanchez said. “I think that’s what we’re lacking this year is bringing in that setter, so it’s really training and looking ahead, as well, toward the younger years and building on that.

“From the previous years that I wasn’t able to be there, it was hard to groom another setter to come in and step into Nolan Sheow’s position. I think once we nail that setting spot, it’s going to all come together. I have really big hitters this season and our defense is pretty intact as well.”

To replace Min Lee at libero will be returning sophomore Bryant Nakasone.

“He’s definitely a force to be reckoned with,” Sanchez said. “He does not let that ball drop. That kid is so quick and he is so athletic. It’s pretty insane to see him.”

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Among Sanchez’s other returning players will be senior defensive specialist George Bates, junior middle Cade Saks and senior middle-and outside hitter Noah Ford, who is in the midst of a successful basketball season.

“I was looking toward the future last season, too,” Sanchez said. “I was grooming a lot of the JV players to come up as well as the varsity players who are already on the team from last year. I think this year, my current seniors have definitely stepped it up and I’m so excited.”

Sanchez also welcomes a transfer from St. Francis, junior Christopher Clark.

Another newcomer is freshman outside hitter Korbin Christoph, who brings club experience as a starter on San Gabriel Elite’s 15’s team that competes in the upper divisions of club competition, as well as facing national-ranked teams.

“He’s a great player just from drive and heart alone,” Sanchez said. “That’s what really pushes him to succeed. He’s volleyball everything. I mean lives and breathes volleyball, and it really shows on that court, too. One of the big [aspects] that impressed [me] with is how fearless he is on the court.”

FLINTRIDGE PREP

A stellar regular season turned into a shocking first-round playoff exit for Flintridge Prep last season. The Rebels (21-4, 8-0 in league) won their sixth straight Prep League championship and appeared set to make a lengthy run in the CIF Southern Section Division III playoffs before being upended by La Cañada in the first round.

Flintridge Prep would like to avoid another early playoff departure.

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“We’ll look to see what we can learn from what happened last year,” Flintridge Prep coach Sean Beattie said. “We know we have to move forward and I like what we have. I think we’re confident and we are meshing well.

“We’re returning many of our core players and we’ve done some things, like passing, well. Time will tell.”

Flintridge Prep brings back senior outside hitter AJ Nicassio, who was named the league’s most valuable player for the second straight season after posting 326 kills and 202 digs and earned All-Area recognition.

“AJ is a fantastic all-around player,” Beattie said. “He’s going to be a great leader for our younger players.”

Nicassio will be joined by senior outside hitter Nathan Powell (123 kills last season), senior opposite hitter Luke Stiles, junior libero Kristofer Chang and junior middle blockers Torres Shi and Cole Bernard.

ST. FRANCIS

St. Francis enjoyed quite an impressive season in 2018, culminating in 20 wins for the first time in more than a decade and competing in the playoffs for the first time since 2012 under coach Mark Frazee.

St. Francis went 20-11, 6-6 in the Mission League for third place. St. Francis defeated San Gabriel in the first round of the Division II playoffs before falling in the second round to Quartz Hill.

The Golden Knights will return some key athletes, yet figure to be a bit less experienced.

“It’s somewhat of a transition year for us,” Frazee said. “We have some freshmen and juniors who we’d like to see make a difference and contribute.

“I do like where we are right now. If we can stay consistent, then I think we’ll be good.”

Joey Thompson, a senior setter/outside hitter, will be a key returner. Thompson registered 405 assists, 46 kills, 20 blocks and 13 aces to pick up all-league and All-Area honors last season.

The Golden Knights also bring back senior libero Coby Escalano (204 digs) and junior opposite hitter Gus Maltzan.

vincent.nguyen@latimes.com

Twitter: @ReporterVince


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