By JORDAN IKEDA
Rafu Sports Editor
Second cousins Alex Michiko Lee and Tori Takata share a lot in common despite not having a lot of time to hang out. Both are a mix of Japanese and Korean. Both love volleyball. Both started at libero for their high school varsity teams, and both were outstanding at their position this past season. Alex, a senior, played for Mark Keppel High School and was selected to the second team all-Almont League, while Tori, a junior, suited up for Torrance and earned second team all-Pioneer League honors.
“I was really surprised because defensive players don’t usually get all-team,” Alex told the Rafu Shimpo. “They usually take the hitters and the people who score the points.”
For those unfamiliar with the finer aspects of volleyball, the libero (lih-BEAR-oh) is a player who specializes in defense and usually is the most skilled defender on the team. Translated from Italian as “free,” the libero has a great many responsibilities on the court. She must be a deft passer, great at ball control, and adept at receiving serves and digging.
If you want, you can think of her in other sports terminology as the point guard of the offense and the free safety of the defense. If you’re having trouble spotting her, just look for the girl with the different color jersey, or the one who is free to sub in and out, or, the short, quick one.
“Since I’m one of the shorter girls,” Tori said, “I worked on passing more. So I specialized in passing.”
Both girls having been playing volleyball for their high schools since they were freshmen, and both have spent time in volleyball clinics. Alex got her start with the Tigers Youth Club as an alternative to basketball.
“For me, volleyball was always the funnest sport, the less competitive sport,” Alex said. “It was so different. Growing up, basketball was our lives basically. And volleyball was something different. We could fool around with it and have fun.”
Tori starting playing right before high school, attending clinics and just enjoying volleyball. She loves the sport because of the opportunity to compete as well as the team aspects that come into play—camaraderie, group production.
“Volleyball takes a lot of teamwork,” Alex said. “For each rally, you have to have a bump, set and hit. In basketball, you can have that one good player who can win you a game, but in volleyball, it has to be a team effort.”
Alex went on to explain that volleyball shares a number of similarities with basketball. Footwork, the quick movements and reactions to the ball, the vertical jumping. As a result of her countless years playing in the JA basketball leagues, she picked up volleyball rather quickly.
Her love affair with volleyball and subsequent ability to excel in the sport has also opened up doors for her that she never really considered. Her stellar play for the Aztecs got her noticed by Rio Hondo College who want her to play for them next season.
“I was really surprised,” Alex said. “I hadn’t considered it before, but after hearing all the benefits and then having the option of continuing volleyball after high school in that competitive nature…I’m really considering it. But, I have to see about my other college choices first.”
Her other college choice, well, her dream choice would be UC San Diego, and I mean, one can’t really argue with her on that. Beautiful campus. Pristine weather. Top-notch education. And education is important to Alex who is studying to become a biology teacher.
Both girls have found success in the classroom as well. Alex is ranked in the top 17 percentile of her graduating class while Tori currently sports a 4.0 G.P.A. Alex likes biology and Tori excels in the rare combination of both science and English.
“I’m not really sure what I want to major in college,” Tori said. “I’m kind of interested in the health field. Physical therapy. Well, I recently became interested in it, because this past season I injured my shoulder and had to go to physical therapy. I enjoyed seeing how people can help other people.”
While there have been a lot of positives this past season, the girls also endured a few setbacks. On top of Tori’s injury, the Torrance squad in general suffered a lot of injuries and as a result finished league with a 2-5 record.
Mark Keppel went a decent 5-4 in comparison and eked into the CIF playoffs thanks to an impressive win over Anaheim High School in the wild card game. But the Aztecs were then blown out by a loaded Mayfield High School team that has been atop the CIF for the past few seasons and whose middle hitter will play for USC next year.
And, like her cousin, Alex also sustained an injury.
“Starting the second round against Schurr High School, they had a wrestling mat metal holder near the court. Before the game I ran into it,” she explained with a laugh. “I had to get stitches in my shin. I was out for one game. It was my senior year and I didn’t want to sit out so I played a bit injured my next few. I was very sad I was injured. I am very injury-prone. I was hoping I was going to go with a clean record this year.”
Despite being limited by the injury, it didn’t stop the Rio Hondo recruiter from coming out and offering Alex a spot on the team or from keeping her last game in perspective.
“We didn’t feel that bad when we lost against Mayfield,” she said. “We were never exposed to anything, any play of that level. It was really nice to get a chance to play against people that were so good.”
And despite the down season also riddled by injuries, it hasn’t stopped Tori from looking at next year in a
“Right now I’m just playing club volleyball,” Tori said. “Goes until June. I’m playing for the South Bay volleyball club. I know a lot of girls that are going to move up to varsity are playing club as well so we can improve as a team and set goals for next season.”
It’s obvious these two libero cousins have bright futures ahead of them. That’s due to their hard work, positive attitudes, excellent grades and undoubtedly good genes. For her part, Alex has garnered a great deal from her dual ethnicity.
“For my Korean side,” Alex said with a hint of laughter in her voice, “I’m not really as cultured, but I know the food aspect of it is really good.
“From the Japanese side, basically basketball and the Japanese league,” she said. “All of the friends I’ve made. It’s a whole other lifestyle that I would want my children to continue. I’m really glad that I went through that.”
While Tori is not much into playing hoops, she inherited her penchant for athletics from her mother, Stephanie (Shinn) Takata who was one of the first Asian women to hit the hardwood for the USC women’s basketball team in the 70s.
“My mom just tells me to go all out and play as hard as I can and to my fullest abilities,” Tori said.
All league honors speaks loudly towards that ambition.