M. Terry / SFVS

Birmingham celebrates after winning its first City Section girls’ volleyball title in team history.

By practically all standards, 2018 was a dominant year in girls’ volleyball for the West Valley.

Except for one area.

The City Open Division bracket is comprised of the best eight teams regardless of division. Four of them — Chatsworth, Cleveland, Granada Hills, and Taft — were from the West Valley. El Camino Real was a .500 team that still grabbed the No. 2 seed in the Division I bracket. Birmingham had a losing record and couldn’t win a league game in 10 attempts. But it was the top seed of the Division III bracket.

Mad Props? Perhaps. But it’s a recognition of the depth of talent and the teaching in the West Valley, its coaches said.

“We have really good coaches. Quite a few have been coaching for years,” Birmingham Coach LeAnne Bennett-Riley said. “It makes the people serious about volleyball want to play for West Valley teams.”

“You’re getting a lot of players who have outside club level experience and play year around.That’s really the difference we have against other [City] leagues,” said El Camino Real Coach Alyssa Lee. “And one other thing that helps — the turnover rate is slow. Coaches stay here and build up a program. It adds more stability for players.”

That shining star was diminished somewhat on Saturday, Nov. 3. Birmingham, El Camino Real and Taft all reached the championship game in their brackets. But only Birmingham was able to bring home a trophy.

The Patriots (9-19-2) swept third seed Maywood CES of Los Angeles in straight sets — 25-12, 25-20 and 25-23 — at Granada Hills Charter High School to win the team’s first City girls’ volleyball championship.

“Honestly I was surprised,” Bennett-Riley said. “It was kinda odd for us to be a ‘last man standing’ when we’re usually not in the running. This is huge for our program and a testament to the girls in the program, including the ones who have been here for several years now.”

She praised her 12-player roster — led by senior outside hitter Hailee Kessler, who delivered a game-high 15 kills including the match point against Maywood (20-8) — for ultimately not quitting on the season as the defeats continued to pile up.

“Shortly before the mid-part of the season, they were feeling a weight on their shoulders and felt defeated. So we sat down and wrote out some team and personal goals, in part to re-focus,” Bennett-Riley said.

What also helped was the encouragement Birmingham got from the other league teams, even those that had beat Birmingham soundly.

“They knew we were good and were developing. They felt it would be a [positive] year for us,” the coach said. “That was part of the journey as well. They challenged us and got us prepared for the playoffs.”

El Camino Real (15-16) and Taft (42-8), which played their championship matches at Birmingham Community Charter High School, both lost in four sets to San Pedro High and Palisades High of Pacific, respectively.

In both cases, the Conquistadors and Toreadors ran into an opposing player having a hot day.

Taft was whacked around by Palisades senior Alex Laita, who is headed to the University of Oregon next fall. Laita recorded 22 kills in leading the Dolphins (39-9) to their 30th City championship in girls’ volleyball since 1974. Her total doubled the Toreadors’ Shelby Roloff (11). 

San Pedro outside hitter Sara Peterson, a senior, blasted 14 kills and also dropped in three service aces to help guide the Pirates (26-5) to their first City championship since 2005.

The similarities of the matches were striking. Both Taft and ECR lost the first two sets, but rallied strong to take the third. And each had a lead in the fourth set, but ultimately imploded under the intense pressure from their opponents.

That can be symptomatic for young teams, especially one as young as the Conquistadors who only had two seniors listed on its roster.

“(Peterson) definitely had height on us. We were a bit too tiny to defend against her. And she was really aggressive,” Lee said. “Our starters are the younger girls. Last year they were supporting players. This year they were in more [starting] positions where they take a responsibility for the game. It was something they weren’t accustomed to.

“Young players need to understand…when you are playing for [a championship] you have to be more willing to do more things — that nothing can be taken for granted. You have to be willing to risk making an error for a big reward, which they were timid to embrace. With more experience they will realize that is something they have to do.”