By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Sports Editor
For two years, it must feel as though the Flintridge Prep girls’ volleyball team has been shedding seniors like a dandelion losing seed tufts in the wind.
Last year, they lost five seniors to graduation. After this not-so-memorable season, they’ll lose five more.
Next year, there will be but two: Maya Okamoto and Carly Halili.
“We have a lot of potential, it’s just really hard to harness it sometimes,” said Okamoto, the Rebels’ 16-year-old junior defensive specialist.
“I think we need to try to focus a little better, so that we can live up to our potential. I think everyone wants it. It’s hard to all feel it as a group at the same time.”
Okamoto should know a thing or two about potential. She’s Prep’s three-letter woman, making the varsity teams on volleyball, basketball and softball.
“She’s one of our true athletes,” said Prep volleyball coach Sean Beattie. “Obviously, playing three sports, you have to be a good athlete and she knows how to move effectively. She’s shown a great deal of leadership this year, leading by example.”
Leadership has been a precious commodity for the Rebels this season. High hopes after two sharp wins out of the gate gave way to a winter of reality, as the team has gone five matches without a win and have one more contest in a season that sees their record at 1-10 in the Prep League, 4-17 with two ties overall.
Flintridge’s other junior, Carly Halili, echoed Okamoto’s opinion on the matter of team unity.
“I think we just need to communicate better,” said Halili, a 5-foot-3 defensive specialist. “We definitely have potential as players and as a team. We just need to all be on the same page.”
Both Halili and Okamoto are already showing the leadership qualities that will be instrumental in turning things around next year. There’s little doubt about the physical ability of the team; at Thursday night’s match against a refined team from Mayfield Senior, the Rebels fell behind by at least 10 points in all three sets, but rallied to come to within 6 in two of the three frames.
“Mayfield is a really good team, and I all I asked of the girls was their best effort and they delivered that,” Beattie said after the 3 sets to zero loss. “We made a few mistakes too many at key times, but we clawed our way back in each set.”
Both Okamoto, who stands at an even five feet, and Halili began playing volleyball relatively late, starting in the seventh grade. Beattie said he will lean on each of them for different tasks next year, and was quick to identify their individual strengths.
“Her reactions are what makes her special,” he said of Okamoto. “She’s got no hesitation about giving up her body to get a ball in the air. It’s not easy when the ball’s ricocheting around, but she’s the one flying onto the ground to try to get it. She gives us energy by making great plays and firing up the rest of the team. That’s the kind of player we need.”
Beattie also praised the progress made by Halili, who made her varsity debut this year.
“At the beginning of the season, I wasn’t sure how much she was going to play, honestly,” he explained. “Now, when I get to a situation when I need a go-to player, she’s the first one I call off the bench. Typically, when someone has to come out for a rest, she’s the one I put in.”
Okamoto fully understands that she may take the role of a team captain next year, but admitted that there are parts of her game she’s still working to refine.
“I haven’t played this game for very long, so my volleyball I.Q. isn’t superb, I guess, but I try to hustle as much as I can,” she said.
With her team not going to the CIF playoffs, it may be an opportunity for Okamoto to take some well-deserved rest. She was seen strapping a fairly elaborate knee brace onto her left leg prior to Thursday’s match, a necessity due to a partially torn ACL. In addition to basketball and softball at Flintridge, she also plays for the Northridge Swoosh and Pasadena Bruins in the summer.
Recent studies have drawn parallels in the increased training demands on teenaged athletes and the incidence of joint injuries, and the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons has begun a program to raise awareness of the escalating strains that sports are exerting on young bodies.Okamoto said she was aware of the studies and acknowledged that the knee may need some extended down time, as the jumping and shuffling requirements of basketball and volleyball are similar.
“Well, I try to rest as much as I can the week or two between seasons,” she said, “But this year, I may need to take a little more time off.”
Okamoto and Halili are both solid students – frankly, an absolute requirement to survive at an academically superior school like Flintridge. Okamoto said she managed a 3.8 grade point average last year, but is hoping to improve upon that. She credited teachers like English instructor Scott Myers for bringing course material to life, and while she likes his class, will likely pursue biology once she enters college.
Halili wasn’t sure of her current GPA, but admitted that she may forgo soccer this season to hit the books a little harder.
With a single match left in the volleyball season, the two future leaders said there is little to prove, other than they can compete and will come back stronger next year.
“Honestly, at this point, we have nothing to lose, so playing relaxed and trying to have fun is the best approach,” Okamoto said. “I think then we will play at our best. If we just play volleyball without worrying about losing, that helps us relax.”