When members of the Malibu High Sharks girls volleyball team took the court for matches at last year’s Queen’s Court Tournament in Anaheim, the squad of mostly burgeoning volleyball players looked the part—inexperienced and unsure of themselves, especially in the midst of the numerous top California teams the two-day event draws annually.
What a difference a year made!
A shiver of Sharks competed in the tournament earlier this month and served, set and spiked their way to three wins, according to Malibu head coach Derek Saenz. Although the group dropped five contests, Saenz said Malibu’s play this year versus 2018 was the difference of night and day.
“Last year, we were not competitive at all,” he said. “Last year, everyone was learning together, so it was a much slower development. Everyone was looking at each other on the court like, ‘OK, what do we do?’”
Saenz said a lot of Malibu’s players played volleyball during the offseason and have improved their games drastically. He said the improved play has shown the squad’s new members how Malibu wants to play volleyball.
“Their learning curve is just so much faster,” he said. “It felt like, at the end of the tournament, they knew what to do. We weren’t getting that until October last year.”
The Sharks’ victories were close matches. In the Aug. 10-11 showcase’s junior varsity division, which was won by the Aliso Niguel Wolverines, Malibu finished 26th in the 31-team division. The Sharks finished 30th last year. The Malibu bunch, a mix of varsity, junior varsity, and frosh/soph roster members, included Shaila Sundher, Makenzie Mulligan, Vanessa Leinbach, Mallory McMillan, Lucia Granados, Kendall Reeder, Frankie Lupo, Sophia Banducci, Bella Howe, Elyse Morales, Jamison Douglas and Ornella Wolf.
Malibu’s coach said the Sharks watched some of the tournament’s elite teams compete and saw how those talented squads respond to high expectations.
“The kids saw the bigger crowds,” Saenz noted. “The better you are, you get more eyes on you.”
Malibu watched Mater Dei, the winner of the event’s elite varsity division, take on an upstart team full of energy and enthusiasm. Saenz explained to the Sharks how the underdog squad was trying to create energy by cheering feverishly after every point. Mater Dei stayed measured and eventually won the contest. The victory showcased the mental toughness Saenz wants Malibu to have.
The Queen’s Court Tournament bookended a week that included team tryouts and ended nine days before the Sharks began their 2019 campaign with a home match against the Chaminade Eagles on Tuesday.
Chaminade had a winning 2018 campaign, while Malibu captured two victories.
Saenz wants Malibu to face tough opponents before competing in the Citrus Coast League.
“I don’t like getting a bunch of wins and not knowing if you are good or not,” he said. “So, I like to have a schedule with the best teams up front.”
Malibu’s Citrus Coast League opponents include Carpinteria, Fillmore, Hueneme, Nordhoff and Santa Paula.
Since the Sharks return most of their players from a season ago, Saenz believes the group has a chance to finish in the top three of the league’s standings and qualify for the CIF playoffs.
“You don’t have to finish first to make the playoffs, so we are going to look at the numbers two and three spots,” he said.
Malibu last made the playoffs in 2017, when the team advanced to the CIF Southern Section Division 8 semifinals.
Saenz wants the Sharks to have fun.
“Win or lose, we are still playing a game,” the onetime college volleyball player said. “If it’s not fun for you, go somewhere else. Getting them to understand they can make things more fun with how much energy they put into it is an important thing.”