As dominant as the La Cañada High girls' volleyball program has been in recent years — winning a CIF Southern Section Division II-A championship in 2008 and reaching the title match again in 2009 — it has suffered disappointing ends to the playoffs since joining Division II-AA in 2010.
First, the top-seeded Spartans saw their season end in the quarterfinals in 2010. Last season's finish came even more unceremoniously when they fell to Mission Viejo at home in a five-game, second-round thriller.
"I had probably one of the most talented teams last year, but talent doesn't always win championships," said La Cañada Coach Brock Turner. "Even when we won in '08 and went back to the finals in '09, we had to band together and fight for everything."
Just like 2011, things are looking promising for the Spartans, who enter 2012 as the No. 2 team in the Division II-AA preseason polls and return a dangerous offense with decorated senior outside hitters Micaela Anderson and Kendall Walbrecht and senior middle blocker Katie Pierce. Anderson was the 2011 Rio Hondo League MVP with Pierce claiming the honor in 2010 and Walbrecht picking up first-team all-league and All-Area honors last season.
"When you have the same kind of team everyone has higher expectations but maybe sometimes less effort can go into it when you have so much talent," Turner said. "There's the saying, 'Hard work will beat talent when talent doesn't work hard.' It's not like our girls didn't work hard, but maybe at times they assumed, 'Oh, we're going to win.'"
The Spartans will be favorites to win their 10th straight Rio Hondo League title coming off a 22-11, 10-0 in league season. They will be without two key starters in libero Catherine Horner and setter Kirstie Shurie this season, but Turner has called on seven sophomores to join a cast of seven seniors.
"I don't know if I've ever had this much of a mix before," Turner said.
La Cañada will rely on returning seniors Lauren Streeter, Madison Teodo and Megan Swartzlander. Streeter will start at middle, Teodo replaces Horner at libero and Swartzlander is the team's starting defensive specialist.
Turner is debating between running a 5-1, one-setter or a 6-2, two-setter lineup with senior Lisa Kramer and sophomore Leigh Sclafani vying for the position. Sophomores Jenna Gray and Taylor Page are also battling for the starting right side hitter position.
With a mix of youth and experience, Turner knows his team will put the past two years behind it and leave its own mark on 2012.
"Sometimes as a coach and as a player you have to have a short memory, don't remember the past, because everyone is new," Turner said. "People are older, people are wiser – you hope – and everyone is going to put their stamp on for the year 2012. If you constantly look back people with catch you."
Ernest Banaag couldn't help but look back and be impressed with the history of success the Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy volleyball program has put together in the past 15 seasons.
While shaping Mayfield into perennial CIF champions, Banaag couldn't help but admire the Tologs, who won CIF titles in 1996 and 1997 and consistently challenged for Mission League crowns.
Banaag pined to become the head coach at Flintridge Sacred Heart if the position ever became available. It did after last season, leading to Banaag applying for the job and filling the role.
"The Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy volleyball program has a lot of pride," said Banaag, who will succeed Anne Arlie after leading Mayfield to three straight CIF titles between 2008-10. "They certainly don't like to lose, and I like that a lot because they are already self motivated.
"You see and hear a lot about the programs because they've always been one that's been competitive. I knew that it would be a great place to coach one day. I waited my turn and the job opened up."
While the Tologs missed the playoffs last season — they finished fifth in league last season — Banaag said they aren't far from again contending for a league crown and vying for a playoff spot.
"I'll come in taking a cautious approach," Banaag said. "For example, you know the Mission League will be hard again, so I'll see what happens during the first round [of league] and then assess things."
The Tologs' key returners figure to be senior libero Colleen Degnan, junior outside hitters Katie Conley and Madie Peterson and sophomore setter Sophia Coffey.
Flintridge Prep struggled throughout most of last season while fielding an inexperienced squad and missed the playoffs. The Rebels will look to reverse the trend under coach Sean Beattie.
"When you look at our team, as a whole, we are relatively young," Beattie said. "Half of our team is seniors and the other half is a combination of freshmen and sophomores.
"It will take some time, but I think our future bodes well. We will need the younger players to continue to grow quickly and the older players to stay patient."
Among those expected to contribute for the Rebels are senior middle blockers Danielle Lincoln and Olivia Gaines, senior setter Katherine Bogaard, senior libero Bryn McFadden, sophomore outside hitter Dani Motte and freshmen outside hitters Lauren Stiles and Ella Worley.