A basic breakdown of the Los Angeles City Section girls’ volleyball championships could go something like this.
You could view the glass as either half-full or half-empty. Six Valley area teams had a chance at winning in the Los Angeles City Section’s divisions, Open, I, II, III, IV and V last weekend. And three won championships.
Those teams who didn’t — Granda Hills High in the Open Division, Sherman Oaks CES in Division II and Chavez Learning Academies in Division IV — have nothing to feel bad about. They all ran into flat-out superior opponents in Venice High, Eagle Rock High and the Girls Academic Leadership Academy of Los Angeles. The way teams are shuffled in and out of playoff brackets these days, you can’t always expect to view an even matchup, even on paper. The losses were hardest on the seniors, who don’t get another opportunity to compete, at least in high school.
But for those area teams that did win titles — Sylmar High in Division I, North Hollywood High in Division III and North Valley Military Institute (NVMI) in Division V — the results felt like a jolt from drinking a 15-ounce cup of espresso.
NVMI (8-6), the top seed in Division V, dropped the first two sets to third seed Middle College of Los Angeles (5-4) before rallying to win 23-25, 26-28, 25-22, 25-22, and 15-10 for its first team championship on Friday, Nov. 5, at Hamilton High School in Los Angeles.
North Hollywood also won its first girls’ volleyball title. And Sylmar earned its first Division I title since 2000. Both of those victories — against Foshay Learning Center of Los Angeles and San Pedro High, respectively — came in straight sets on Saturday, Nov. 6, at Birmingham Charter High School.
Dave Lertzman said he knows the history about the 2000 Division I championship the Sylmar girls won “when there was only one division.”
“That team had lost the 1999 final against Palisades,” Lertzman said. “In 2000, they did not lose a single set the entire season until they got to the state regionals. And, back in the day, you could only score points when you were serving.”
Lertzman — who was a teacher as well as a coach before retiring from the classroom in 2011 — has been part of the current Spartans volleyball program since 2014, and became its head coach in 2017. During that time Sylmar was on the cusp of winning a championship. In 2014, the Spartans went to the Division II final but lost to Taft. In 2017, Sylmar went to the Division I final and lost to Chatsworth. The Spartans also lost the outdoor final to Birmingham last year in the shortened spring season due to the pandemic.
“What I remembered from all of that was — especially in 2014 and 2017— was how the kids were…’mesmerized’ when they came into the gym,” Lertzman said.
He wanted to be sure that for the 2021 Division I final against San Pedro, the fourth seed, that the Spartans — seeded third — would be as relaxed as possible on Saturday. His idea: before the team’s Friday practice, Lertzman recreated the conditions Sylmar would be playing under, even how the benches, officials tables and stands would be set up.
Since Sylmar was the higher seed, it could decide what side of the court it would play on since the teams wouldn’t switch ends following every game. Lertzman wanted his team to face opposite from the massive video scoreboard, so it would not be distracted or conscious of moving images and replays.
“They went with it,” the coach said, when asked about his players’ reactions. “I explained why everything was set up the way it was; ‘this is how it’s going to be when you walk into the [Birmingham] gym.’ And they had fun with it. When they got to Birmingham on Saturday, it was like ‘we’ve been here.’”
Still, the Spartans (20-12) played hot and cold in the first game. They built a 24-13 lead and needed only one more point to win. But San Pedro (16-11) ran off 10 consecutive points, and the game hung in the balance until Sylmar finally closed it out, 25-23.
“We had that big lead and then kinda lost it,” middle blocker Mariah Westphal, a senior said afterward. “But we just knew ‘one more point, one more point’ and we finally got it.”
Outside hitter Natalie Urena, another senior, noted the Spartans “didn’t give up a lot” after that to the Pirates, who at times did appear “mesmerized” by the moment.
“We were always on the ball, made sure nothing dropped on the floor,” Urena said, as Sylmar won the last two sets by scores of 25-16 and 25-15.
The Spartans are a veteran team; 10 of the players listed on the roster are seniors. It’s a key reason why they weren’t panicked by San Pedro’s first game rally. And they were determined not to fritter away this championship opportunity.
“The final we lost to Birmingham, that’s all we’ve been thinking about,” Urena said. “[This was] our redemption, for lack of a better word.”
“Our chemistry is on another level, both on the court and off the court. And that’s what really helped us win,” added Westphal.
More than 40 different Los Angeles Unified schools have won a girls’ volleyball title since it became a varsity sport in 1973. And you won’t find North Hollywood’s name among them. In fact, North Hollywood had never even reached a girls’ volleyball final.
Until now, after the Huskies, seeded eighth, upset Foshay, the second seed — a highly improbable upset.
Their head coach, Kevyn Cruz, had played football in high school at Arleta. He had spent the past four years coaching boys’ basketball at North Hollywood. But he had never played or coached volleyball. However, the school had an unexpected opening and asked him to take that position. All Cruz had to do in his first season was learn a sport he didn’t know on the fly and gain the trust of the players who didn’t know him.
Like Sylmar, North Hollywood is a veteran squad — nine of the 12 players listed on the roster are seniors. The team could have felt sabotaged by his selection, and imploded.
Fortunately for Cruz, the close friendships the players say they had developed during their four years at North Hollywood made it easier to accept their situation.
“This team is special because we had bonded in our freshman year,” said setter Melodee Zamilan, a senior. “Most of us have been together [as teammates] since our freshman year. We’re all very close friends outside of volleyball. And we’ve been developing that relationship since the beginning.”
Cruz said the group’s closeness was evident almost immediately.
“Despite being a novice to volleyball, I could see the athletic talent. They could hit the ball hard, they could elevate above the net,” he said. “But most importantly, they all liked each other. I’ve coached other teams where the kids didn’t like each other or meshed well. And you can feel that. But with this group…the camaraderie was there.”
Cruz also didn’t act like a ‘know-it-all,’; he was willing to seek advice not only from school administrator Xavier Chavez, who knew the game and the team, but also from the players themselves.
“Before I could coach them I had to know who they were,” Cruz said. “They’re not just going to trust you automatically. I can’t pinpoint it exactly, but at some point in the season they felt comfortable with me, talking about why a play did or didn’t happen.”
On Saturday, the Huskies (11-6) beat the Wolverines (15-4) by scores of 25-18, 25-11 and 25-13. And they beat them by figuring what worked and what didn’t during that first set.
“The first set the nerves were there, you could tell,” noted senior defensive specialist Samantha Molinari. “But after that there were no nerves — we just played our game.”
Perhaps the pivotal moment of the match came when North Hollywood was leading 12-7 in the third set. The teams were engaged in a furious exchange when middle hitter Dana Arguien, a senior — who led the Huskies with (unofficially) 10 kills — knocked a return that hit the top of the net, rolled tantalizingly along the edge, and then dropped onto Foshay’s side of the floor where no player could reach it.
You could feel the Wolverines’ collective spirits sag. And the Huskies continued on pretty much unimpeded the rest of the way.
“I’m not gonna even lie; we would have never thought we’d get here (to the finals),” Molinari said. “The last couple of years we didn’t even get to the playoffs. But we just kept building and fighting every season. Just to get here felt astronomical.”
Getting to a final was historical enough. But then winning a championship under these circumstances?
“It’s incredible, with the history of our school [which opened in 1927], to still be able to do something for the first time,” Cruz said. “I was so focused on trying to get us ready that it didn’t really hit me afterward [this was the first championship]. It’s mind-blowing.”