It’s is unknown if the 2016 season proves to be a jumping-off point for the Cleveland High girls’ volleyball team, or if the Cavaliers were simply a streaking comet through the athletic sky.
The overall record of 15-19, along with a fifth place finish in the West Valley League would suggest neither to the uninitiated.
But it was this same group of Cavs, seeded third, who were staring across the net at top seed and heavy favorite Venice High for the City Section Division I championship on Saturday, Nov. 12, at Roybal Learning Center in Los Angeles.
Although Cleveland lost in four sets — 23-13, 18-25, 25-17-25-15 — the Cavaliers rewarded the faith of their coach Jeff Laidlaw in reaching the final.
“We knew that we would be a part of [the championship match],” Laidlaw said. “Ever since I saw the seeding I had told the team ‘you will be in the final against Venice.’ I made that bold prediction and it came true.”
Few others would have made that prophecy. After all, following a 4-0 start, the Cavaliers went 11-14, including a seemingly woeful 2-8 in the West Valley League, suggesting the old adage that water seeks its own level.
But the West Valley League may be the strongest in the City girls’ volleyball. Birmingham was the only league team that did not qualify for playoffs. And the four teams that finished ahead of Cleveland — Granada Hills Charter, Chatsworth, El Camino Real and Taft — were among the eight seeds in the City Open Division, the City’s highest playoff level.
“I knew how good my team was,” Laidlaw said. “I knew from the beginning of the season, even before they had played a match together. I told them they were a Division I City final caliber team. We play in a tough, tough league, and every team we play it’s like a playoff match. So we’ve been well prepared.”
So those observers only looking at the team’s record or youth — the starting lineup includes two freshman, a sophomore and a junior — may have scoffed at Cleveland’s seeding or been surprised that the Cavaliers took out Monroe, San Pedro and Harbor City Narbonne to reach the final.
The true attention-getter was Cleveland actually winning a set against the Gondoliers, who are tall and athletic and barely broke a sweat dispatching Verdugo Hills and South Gate in the quarterfinals and semifinals.
On Saturday, the Gondoliers’ lead players, senior Sophia Howling (20 kills, three blocks, four aces) and junior Kaitlin Craig (eight kills, seven blocks, three aces), were particularly formidable, and there wasn’t much dropoff when they weren’t on the floor.
But freshman Brianna Botello (13 kills, three aces) and junior Kira Widran (seven aces, one block) showed the Cavaliers do have some building blocks for the future. And Laidlaw believes the future looks bright.
When the coach was asked how he wanted his players to look back on this season, he replied, “I want then to remember what they did to get here. This is the first time in Cleveland history — 57 years — that we’ve made it to a final in Division I. But the road getting here; I was probably more stressed about that then this game.
“A lot of people look at our roster and they see ‘ninth grader’ here and a ‘10th grader’ there. But I set the expectations high, and I will be doing the same thing again.”