Volleyball looking to make statement this season

Trailblazers, assemble.

The Sierra Canyon girls volleyball players are coming together for the first time this week following a whirlwind summer to prepare for perhaps their most ambitious season yet: competing in the Mission League for the first time.

Senior Olivia Babcock returned from the USA U-19 women’s volleyball team, junior Danica Rach from the National Development Training program and sophomore Lauren Lynch from the Under Armour All-American Camp.

The vast majority of the roster also competed at nationals for their respective club teams, including a fifth-place finish for Rach’s team.

“Everyone has been playing non-stop,” said Sierra Canyon coach Stefanie Wigfall, who guided her City Volleyball Club to a silver medal at the USA Volleyball Championships in Indianapolis. “Everyone is up to speed as far as volleyball goes. Physically we are in a good place. Now it is just a matter of gelling.”

Sierra Canyon boasts a strong foundation, returning nearly everyone from last year’s glowing 24-8 campaign that included strong CIF and state playoff runs in the highest division.

Suddenly Sierra Canyon finds itself thrust into the midst of the rough-and-tumble Mission League that boasts perennial powerhouses Marymount, Harvard-Westlake, Alemany, Marlborough and Notre Dame Academy after capturing six consecutive Gold Coast League crowns.

“They feel like they have something to prove,” Wigfall said. “They are the first Sierra Canyon team in history not to be in the Gold Coast League, and that’s a big deal. 

“They want to represent well and be at the top of this league, which is one of the toughest in California, maybe only second to the Trinity League.”

Wigfall upgraded Sierra Canyon’s nonleague schedule to prepare for the rigors of the Mission League.

It starts with a pair of summer tournaments – this weekend’s Oxnard Invitational and the Iolani Ann Kay Tournament in Hawaii – to get reacquainted and rediscover the chemistry that carried last year’s team.

Then the regular-season nonleague schedule packs a wallop starting with the season opener Aug. 17 at Santa Margarita. It also features challenging road matches at Santa Barbara, San Clemente and Notre Dame and home marquee matchups against Redondo and Oaks Christian.

Sierra Canyon also returns to the Durango Tournament in Las Vegas, considered one of the nation’s premier tournaments.

“We loaded up the first part of the season so we can be as prepared as possible going into the new league,” Wigfall said. “Every match is going to be a battle. Marymount is always good, Harvard-Westlake is good, Alemany is always a grudge match.

“There’s no guarantee to make the playoffs.”

Sierra Canyon has the talent to be a Mission League contender.

Babcock is the returning star pin hitter who is a University of Pittsburgh recruit. She will be the ringleader for a cohesive unit.

“She has always had exceptional athleticism, but she has improved the skill parts of her game,” Wigfall said. “She started playing volleyball later than others, but you are seeing the skills sync up with the athleticism.

“She is a tremendous blocker, a ferocious attacker and has one of the best jump serves in the nation.”

Rach will be a consistent force as the outside hitter, and Lynch is a stabilizing libero.

Senior outside hitter Natalie Babcock, junior middle blocker Madeline Way, senior middle blocker Ava Hewitt-Smith and setter Sade Ilawole are also pivotal returners.

Sierra Canyon should get a boost from Jaida Sione, a Yale recruit who transferred back to Sierra Canyon for her senior season after moving to Texas last season.

Junior setter Rachael Reyes, senior outside hitter Alara Engel and senior defensive specialist Lisa Kassabian will also be viable contributors.

Freshman Mia Stewart – the younger sister of former Sierra Canyon star Zoie Stewart – has the potential to make an immediate impact on a loaded roster.

“I think we have had close-knit teams in the past, but what we haven’t had that we have now is size and athleticism,” Wigfall said.

Wigfall is expecting her second child with husband and assistant coach Darrin Phillips and has a late August due date. She will miss the trip to Hawaii and some time at the beginning of the season. 

Phillips will serve as the interim coach in Wigfall’s absence. Wigfall and Phillips also brought in Mitch Kallick as a bench coach and Ryan Duncan as a junior varsity coach/assistant coach to help with the transition phases.

With a new baby, a talented squad and a new league, Wigfall is envisioning a banner season and hopes to add to the program’s 2016 and 2017 CIF titles and 2017 state championship.

“I really want to win another CIF title – that would be amazing,” Wigfall said. “It’s always going to be a depth challenge. We are a school of a couple hundred kids taking on schools with 2,500 kids, but if we stay healthy and at the same time, train hard, we can find that balance.

“I would love to make that CIF title happen.”