By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Sports Editor
When the CIF Southern Section boys volleyball championships get underway today, several of the expected schools will be there: powerhouse Mater Dei, Laguna Beach, among others.
A team that might be overlooked (unless this article gets around adequately) is 1200-student Northridge Academy, who are playing in the L.A. City Small Schools division. The Pumas aren’t some unknown squad out of nowhere, however. This is their third trip to the final in the past five years.
“We have a good program that we’ve built from scratch,” said Northridge head coach Azy Badiei, who skippers the girls’ team as well. “We’ve worked hard and we’re proud that we’ve come a long way.”
When the Pumas take the court at Venice High School today at noon, they will include senior opposite hitter and defensive specialist Tyler Fukumoto, who told the Rafu that he is thrilled to have a shot at the title.
“I know that it means a whole lot to all of my teammates, including myself, to finally be playing in the championship,” Fukumoto wrote in an email. “We have been working hard the whole season to reach, and hopefully win, the championship.”
The opportunity to play in the finals is especially sweet for Fukumoto, whose athletic life was consumed mainly by basketball until his junior year. Badiei said that when she first saw him on the basketball court, she was immediately struck by his agility.
“As a coach, you look for someone who is very athletic,” she explained. “He’s what we call very coachable–if I ask him to try something, he doesn’t brush it off, he absorbs it. He’s very quick to learn.”
For his part, Fukumoto said Badiei’s guidance has made all the difference, along with the support of his parents and brother.
“Making the transition from basketball to volleyball has been really easy because I have a great coach who has taught me so much about volleyball,” he said. “Another reason I think that it has been easy is because basketball and volleyball are similar in a lot of ways. The explosiveness and footwork that I have learned through basketball comes in handy when I am trying to get a dig or make a play on the ball.”
Northridge is hoping to cap a stellar season, in which they posted 18 wins against 8 losses and 2 draws, including a perfect 10-0 in City Section league. The Pumas were also bona fide road warriors, winning all five league matches away from their home court.
Fukumoto’s stats credit him with 16 kills and 16 digs, along with 12 aces, 2 assists and a block. He has a kill percentage of 29.6, according to MaxPreps.com.
An added attraction for today’s match is the fact that it will the rubber match in the finals for Northridge and their main rivals from the Elizabeth Learning Center. The Bulldogs, under coach Elias Gomez has a victory against Badiei’s girls for a title, while the Pumas boys’ 2007 finals win was over Elizabeth.
“He’s beat us once and we’ve beaten him once, so this should be an exciting third meeting,” Badiei said.
The 2011 CIF Southern Section Small Schools boys volleyball final begins today at noon, in the gymnasium at Venice High School.