La Cañada, St. Francis and Flintridge Prep volleyball have playoff hopes

After the 2012 season ended earlier than hoped for both the Flintridge Prep and La Cañada High boys' volleyball teams, both are poised with renewed aspirations for playoff berths after missing out last year.

The Rebels and Spartans will look to do so under much different circumstances, while nearby St. Francis will look to match its success from last year, one of its finest seasons to date, after having graduated most of its key players.

The majority of Flintridge Prep's starting lineup is in tact, although it is off to a late start with most coming from the boys’ basketball team, which had its Southern Section playoff run come to an end Friday.

Still, Prep Coach Sean Beattie has high hopes for the group once its had some time under its belt, as the Rebels return their setter, both middle blockers, an outside hitter and defensive specialist.

“It’s a team that’s kind of familiar with each other,” said Beattie, whose team will kick off its season when it hosts La Cañada at 3:30 p.m. Friday, “which is good considering the basketball run.”

While it's a Flintridge Prep squad that missed the postseason last year, there's plenty of reason for optimism with a group that should be dynamic offensively and boast some size after only graduating its libero Michael Ellis and outside hitter Kory Hamane.

Among the returners and basketball players are Kareem Ismail and Tyler Weakland in the middle; Chadd Cosse on the outside; Jedrick Eugenio, who played opposite hitter last year, and a defensive specialist from last year, Harrison Jung.

The Rebels, who went 11-15, 2-6 in the Prep League last year, also return their first-year setter from 2012, Michael Lii and another opposite, Michael Leslie. Kurt Kozacik is one of three players, along with Jung, who'll likely battle for the libero spot with the runner-up likely filling in at defensive specialist.

“I really have high hopes for this team, but I had hopes for last year’s team, too,” Beattie said. “It was definitely disappointing not making playoffs, I thought we were good enough to make playoffs.”

While Beattie would've set his sights on a third-place finish in the Prep League over the last three or four years, he's aiming for the top now after figuring Pasadena Poly and Chadwick, last year's CIF Southern Section Division V champions, should be down a bit this season.

“The league has all come to an even footing — anyone has a good chance — as in the past we knew Poly and Chadwick were the head honchos,” Beattie said. “The top has come down and the bottom has come up.”

Poly and Chadwick's recent dominance, not only in league but Division V, has bumped the Rebels and the rest of the league up to Division IV, which changes the playoff picture.

“The fact they moved us up to Division IV is the only concerning part to me,” Beattie said. “I told the guys last year I thought we would make a good run in the playoffs this year, but it’s a whole new group of teams I have to learn about now.”

It's always tough sledding for St. Francis in the stacked Mission League. Last year was one of the Golden Knights' finest campaigns, as they earned the league's fourth guaranteed playoff spot before being bounced in the first round.

After graduating five seniors from last year, St. Francis Coach Mark Frazee is hoping it can match 2012.

“We’re always trying to strive for playoffs,” Frazee said. “I know our league is one of the toughest in Southern California, and we’re constantly having to prove ourselves as a Division III team in a Division I league. With our seniors and our leadership, I think if we come together and if we can solidify everything we’ll be OK.”

Seniors Charles McCarthy and Chris Thompson at outside hitter and setter, respectively, will be called upon to lead a young St. Francis team, which went 12-6, 7-5 in league last. AJ Krappman returns as the Knights' lefty opposite hitter with sophomore Thomas Lund set to occupy one middle blocker position with the other still up for grabs.

Chris Thompson's younger brother, freshman David Thompson, will give the Golden Knights' offense a new look, as they'll be setting alongside each other this year and is one of several freshmen who’ll be asked to make a big contribution this year.

“I’m going to run a different offense than we’ve run in the past five or six years, I'm going to use two setters,” said Frazee, who'll also have Chris hitting and freshman Carl D’Aguiar at defensive specialist this year. “I have some pretty big shoes to fill with the guys that left last year.”

With a new coach and freshman class packed with club players, La Cañada has its expectations set much higher than its most recent 5-12, 1-7 in the Rio Hondo League — for fourth place — season.

Otto Lacayo, a coach with Westridge School and the San Gabriel Elite club team, is the team's new leader with a handful of young Elite players on board.

“I would like them to make the playoffs this year, that's my goal right now as a coach is to train them hard enough to make the playoffs,” Lacayo said. “I feel like we do have the right players to make that happen.”

Freshmen Connor Walbrecht and Mel Schroeder, brothers of Spartans girls' volleyball players Kendall Walbrecht and Laura Schroeder, give La Cañada a talented setter and hitter, respectively, for years to come. Fellow fresh faces Connor Belcher and Ben Choi should also bolster the Spartans' defense.

The group should give the Spartans some immediate chemistry, as Walbrecht, Schroeder and Belcher play together on the same Elite 16 squad.

Back to lead La Cañada are seniors Jonathan Sullivan, a hitter who can play on the right or outside, and middle blocker Mitchell Page.

With that group, Lacayo's expectations go beyond a playoff appearance. The Spartans’ new coach calls Ben Diaz — South Pasadena High and Elite 16 Team coach — a close friend. The Tigers, who advanced to the Division III quarterfinals and are ranked No. 5 in the division, will be favored to repeat as Rio Hondo League champions.

“He and I talk and discuss the league very often and he has us as the No. 2 team,” Lacayo said. “I would like for that happen at least, if not compete with him.”

Lacayo not only hopes to compete for a top-two spot in league and playoff appearance, but to put together a postseason run.

“What we're trying to do here is bring a high level of expectation,” he said. “If they're not challenged the bar's going to be set low, if they are then we set the bar a little higher. Hopefully, they can keep pushing that bar as high as it goes.”

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