Photo By: Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier
What St. Francis High coach Leahi Hall Leon described as a “real blessing” for her girls volleyball team could prove to be a curse for those facing the Lancers this season.
Teeming with talent in the back row, St. Francis doesn’t figure to surrender kills easily. Expect the Lancers to record more digs than a seasoned archaeologist.
“We have so many players with back-row and defensive ability,” said Hall Leon, whose squad improved to 6-1 with Thursday’s five-game win over visiting Menlo. “All four of our (defensive specialists) are libero-caliber players. We’re lucky to have four tremendously capable defensive players.”
The foursome includes returnees Catherine Wes and Kelly Wimmer, both seniors, and Tatiana San Juan and Hannah Aguirre, juniors new to varsity. The Columbia University-bound Wes “is our most steady passer, and also plays outside hitter and libero,” Hall Leon said.
The Lancers’ fourth-year coach knows a thing or two about defense – she was a defensive specialist/libero for Stanford University from 2001 to 2004.
St. Francis doesn’t just have top-notch players in the back row – the Lancers have weapons up front as well. Outside hitters Chloe Lott and Alexandra Espinosa and middle blockers Stephanie Kellogg and Emily Rose played major roles on last year’s team, which won the Central Coast Section Division II title and reached the Northern California final. All of them are seniors except for Espinosa (junior).
The 5-foot-10 Lott, who started at right-side hitter last season, seems to be making a smooth move to outside hitter. She led the Lancers in kills in both of their matches last week, notching 14 in a sweep of Albany and 23 against Menlo.
“Chloe has been the kill leader for the majority of our matches.” Hall Leon said. “She’s been a big part of the offense, and Stephanie’s not far behind.”
Kellogg, a 6-1 middle blocker, ranks among the team’s top scorers. The Egan Junior High graduate recently committed to Brown University, according to Hall Leon.
With Kellogg playing alongside the 6-2 Rose, the Lancers have been mighty in the middle.
“We’ve received a lot of production from our middles,” the coach said. “Stephanie is scoring points and Emily is a tremendous blocker.”
The 5-10 Espinosa stepped in for ailing all-leaguer Christine Alftin (who has since transferred to Woodside) during the playoffs last year and became a key cog in the offense. This season Espinosa is seeing action at outside hitter and right-side hitter.
“She’s a great attacker,” Hall Leon said. “We’re able to use her at two positions with great success.”
The Lancers lost super setter Taylor Formico to graduation – along with three other all-leaguers – and two players are trying to replace her. Haley Roe and Maclaine Westendorf are “splitting time” at the position, Hall Leon said, because “they each earned the opportunity to compete.” Roe is a 5-10 senior who backed up Formico last year; Westendorf, who goes by “Macky” is a 5-8 junior up from JV.
“Haley has high goals for herself and the team, and has a great presence on the court,” the coach said. “Macky does a great job of getting our faster-tempo offense to the pins.”
Although it will be a challenge to match last year’s success and record (33-8), Hall Leon doesn’t seem too concerned about that. Instead of obsessing over accomplishments, she stresses performance.
“We talk about what we can control and not wins,” the coach said. “The girls are doing a great job focusing on producing their best effort and not on the results. The score will take care of itself if we remain focused on that task.”
St. Francis’ lone loss this year is to Mitty at the season-opening Spikefest tournament. Hall Leon expects the Monarchs to be one of many formidable foes in the West Catholic Athletic League this season.
“It will be an interesting year in the WCAL,” she said. “Mitty returns a lot of great talent and placed first at Spikefest. Presentation graduated a number of starting seniors and has a lot of younger players on the court, but they play hard and fast. And never count out Sacred Heart Cathedral, which has always played with tremendous tenacity.”
It’s too soon to tell if the Lancers have what it takes to win the league, but Hall Leon said team chemistry is one thing that won’t derail their chances.
“It’s a really sweet group – they’re really nice girls,” she said. “They understand that the unit is stronger than the individual, and they’re huge supporters of each other.”
St. Francis is scheduled to host Homestead 6 p.m. Thursday.