The youngest members of the Malibu High Sharks girls volleyball squad joined some high-level players on the court earlier this month.

The group of ninth graders practiced with the Mizuno Long Beach Volleyball Club, a Carson-based youth volleyball program awash with top-shelf volleyball players from the South Bay, on Feb. 10. Malibu head coach Derek Saenz said the goal of the Sharks’ training session with Mizuno athletes was to show his team how the best of volleyballers refine their skills. 

“I wanted them to see what all the other girls are doing,” said Saenz, a former Mizuno coach. “It’s a nationally competitive program.” 

Sharks freshman setter and outside hitter Vanessa Leinbach, 14, said the training session was an eye-opening experience.

“Seeing how good those girls were—and maybe some of them were even younger than us—it really pushed us to want to get better,” she said.

Saenz, whose first season coaching Malibu ended in October, said when Mizuno director Joy McKienzie-Fuerbringe—also the head coach of Long Beach State’s women’s volleyball team—said the Sharks could attend the practice, he didn’t want the opportunity to sail by his group of beginning volleyball players. 

“You can’t wait ‘til you’re ready,” Saenz said, alluding to the difference in skill level between the Malibu and Mizuno players. “Just go in. You have to be fine with making errors in practice.” 

The volleyball exercise started with a 30-minute warmup and continued with the Sharks mixing in with different groups of 15- and 16-year-old Mizuno players. Together, the teenagers were drilled in aspects of the sport such as footwork, positioning and ball control. 

Malibu freshman middle blocker Makenzie Mulligan, 15, said training with the volleyball club was fun. She said the main thing she learned at the Carson practice was to get to the ball quicker. 

“It was intimidating at first because they were all a lot taller than us,” Mulligan noted, adding, “they were all really nice and supportive.” 

The Sharks’ excursion more than 30 miles south happened during an offseason in which they have spent a lot of time practicing their volleyball chops. The girls started practice in November, but the aftermath of the Woolsey Fire took them off the court for several weeks. 

Saenz decided to bring the group together after the wildfire to allow the girls to gain more volleyball instruction and playing time and give them time away from dealing with stresses the disastrous blaze caused on their lives. 

“They were just kind of secluded,” the coach said. “They didn’t see their friends. They had nowhere to go ... and focus their energy. [During] the first couple of practices, the kids were really excited just to go and do something.”

Mulligan, a first-year volleyball player, said the offseason has featured her and teammates practicing twice a week and playing in tournaments once a month. She said the Sharks have become better volleyball players. 

“I just want to develop more skills and work better as a team,” Mulligan said. 

Leinbach said when the burgeoning volleyball players first started practicing, they had trouble serving and setting the ball.

“Our passes were going behind us,” she said. “Now, we are getting the ball to the setter and are doing our pass-set-hit, and we are getting our serves over.” 

Her coach said the Sharks have progressed.

“There has been huge improvement,” Saenz said

Malibu has participated in two Southern California Volleyball Association tournaments this school year. Their next tourney is set for March 3. Saenz said the group plays in club tournaments as opposed to scrimmaging against area high school teams in order to play multiple games and face teams with similar volleyball expertise.

“The girls can learn and be successful and play other teams at their level,” he said, adding that if they face a higher-level team in a tournament and are beaten, the team will be moved to a different bracket in the tourney where Malibu will face a team akin to themselves. 

Saenz wants his players to learn to control the ball better this offseason. He also wants them to be an example for their other teammates next fall.

“I want the girls that didn’t train to see how well their friends have improved,” he said. “That sets them up to decide if they want to improve at all.” 

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