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GAME BALL: Girls volleyball team captain reaches 1,000 career kills, receives Dream Team recognition

Outside+hitter+senior+Kayla+Taylor+holds+up+two+fingers+during+the+quarterfinal+match+against+Windward+School+on+Wednesday%2C+Oct.+25.
Chloe Kang
Outside hitter senior Kayla Taylor holds up two fingers during the quarterfinal match against Windward School on Wednesday, Oct. 25.

In the midst of the black-and-yellow coded Sunny Hills gym, bright splotches of leprechaun green fill the stands and the court.

The nine-meter net separates six players from the SH girls volleyball team from the opposing Kennedy High School players as they position themselves to receive a serve. It’s the Oct. 26, 2022, CIF quarterfinal match for the Lady Lancers against one of their strongest opponents.

For captain senior Kayla Taylor, the devastating loss against the Fighting Irish serves as the most memorable volleyball match she’s played in her high school career.

“Our team was super excited about CIF, and we knew that we [could have defeated] Kennedy, but they kind of shut us down,” Taylor said. “I know it’s not the most uplifting, but it’s definitely what I take away most from last season, knowing that we could have [beaten] them, but we didn’t.”

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Though the match cut Taylor and her team’s CIF journey short, she believes it was another learning experience.

“It taught me to not take what I had for granted because we knew we could beat the team, but we didn’t perform how we should have, or we didn’t bring the energy that we needed,” she said. “So I guess just this year, we kind of translated that to working toward our goals, like in the moment and not taking our next matches for granted.”

Now a two-year captain, the 5-foot-9-inch senior who plays outside hitter has recently reached 1,000 career kills in less than three high school seasons, the first time for a girls volleyball player in over 10 years at Sunny Hills, girls volleyball team head coach Amanda Donaldson said.

(A kill is awarded to a player any time an attack is unreturnable by the opposing team and leads directly to a point, according to NCAA.org.)

The SH volleyball program uses an analysis program called Hudl in which the coaches upload match film and consequently receive statistics on the players’ performance in the video. Besides kills, Hudl has the ability to show every time a player touches a ball in the submitted video of a match.

Taylor’s 1,000 career kills did not include statistics from her freshman year, as it was considered ineligible from the closure of all sports leagues during the COVID-19 pandemic.

After finding out through a text message from her father that she reached 1,000 kills during an away match against Sonora High School on Thursday, Sept. 28, Taylor said she felt elated, since it was a goal since her sophomore year after reaching over 350 official career kills.

“I thought that’d be really cool if I could get over 1,000 kills if I kept up that year’s kill record, so I guess it was something I was working toward, but it wasn’t at the top of my mind the whole time,” Taylor said. “It was more of a self-motivation because I didn’t really discuss it with many other people until after I reached the 1,000s.”

In a practice after the Sonora match, Donaldson said she played a prank on the program and acted like the players were in trouble, but surprised the girls with the news and Taylor with a handmade poster indicating that she reached 1,000 kills.

Donaldson said she felt extremely proud when she found out about Taylor’s accomplishment after she uploaded the match film to Hudl during the weekend after the Sonora match.

“I was absolutely stoked; it’s not a normal thing, and it just shows how much our setters have confidence in setting [to] her,” Donaldson said. “It’s so cool to see, and I think it’s such a great example to everyone else in our program that you don’t have to be 6 feet to be incredible — you have to have the right mindset, and you have to have the right work ethic.”

Taylor said her volleyball journey started when she was around 7 years old at the YMCA, after participating in other sports like soccer, swimming and gymnastics. After a coach’s recommendation to play club volleyball, she said she started playing competitively four years later at Brea Volleyball Academy, Icon Volleyball Club and Achievement, Commitment, Teamwork Volleyball Club, where she will play her 18s season this year.

Taylor said she also played on the Parks Junior High School team for two years and won the district championship in seventh grade.

“It got me really excited to play because it made me realize that volleyball isn’t just competition, it’s having fun as well,” the senior said.

After playing at her middle school, Taylor said she knew she wanted to continue with the sport at Sunny Hills. Taylor said she heard good things about the SH volleyball coaches before entering high school, which played a big factor in helping her make the decision to play for the Lady Lancers.

Donaldson, who first met Taylor at a club tryout before her freshman year, said she is a reliable factor on the court as a six-rotation player, a player who stays on the court throughout the whole match and is a crucial part of a team’s defense and offense.

“She’s just like this calm force that anybody on the team including the coaches, including myself, can look to and know that she’s there, and everybody can feel reassured,” she said. “Kayla is always mentally available to improve herself and improve her leadership style, which is more of a team aspect.”

Donaldson also praises Taylor’s leadership, drive and the passion she exemplifies when playing.

“I say, ‘Hey, let’s work on crossbody high-line [shots],’ and she’s going to do it until she gets it, and she does it in [matches],” the head coach said. “Right now because of that capacity and mentality to just expand her [skillset], it’s unreal.”

Taylor’s friend and teammate senior Jasmin Sonboli emphasizes her humble personality and undeniable court presence.

“She is really funny, and she is also really humble — you wouldn’t be able to tell that she’s an amazing volleyball player,” said Sonboli, who met Taylor during freshman year volleyball tryouts. “On the court, she is very motivating and selfless, like she’ll put other players before herself, but she’s also one of our most reliable players and you can always count on her.

“She also sets team meetings and stuff, and we go over our goals, and it’s obvious that she cares to better the team.”

BIGGER AND BETTER GOALS

On Thursday, Sept. 21, Taylor was also recognized as a member of the Girls High School Dream Team by Volleyballmag.com.

Every week during the high school season, Volleyballmag.com recognizes a Dream Team of high school volleyball players who displayed their athleticism, skillset and all-around physical abilities the weekend before, according to the Sept. 21 article.

“Taylor continues to shine for the Lancers,” according to Volleyballmag.com. “One of the state’s leading attackers, Taylor had 34 kills over eight sets in two wins last week and showed off her six-rotation ability with 19 digs and five aces.

This, coming on the heels of an MVP performance, in the Division 2 tournament at Dave Mohs one week earlier.”

Although she didn’t realize the magnitude of her recognition at first, Taylor said she was thrilled when she found out the members of the Dream Team were picked nationally.

“I found out when my coach told me at practice, and at first I didn’t think it was a huge deal, but I was really excited to hear it after I found out that it was across the nation and it wasn’t just a regional thing,” said the captain, who was named MVP of the Orange County [OC] Invitational held at Rosary Academy on Saturday, Sept. 2, and the Dave Mohs tournament held on Friday, Sept. 8, and Saturday, Sept. 9.

In addition to the first-place finish in the gold bracket at the OC Invitational and 1st place in the silver division at the Dave Mohs tournament during the 2023-2024 season, Taylor has been recognized as MVP by the SH volleyball program her sophomore and junior years for the season and said she is hopeful to get the All-League MVP this year.

The day after her Dream Team recognition, Taylor said she committed to Denison University, a Division 3 school in Granville, Ohio, after receiving an offer from the school.

“It’s been a dream of mine since I started playing volleyball and knowing that everything I worked for worked out well in the end is really exciting,” she said.

Her decision to commit to a Division 3 campus sprouted from her wanting to balance academics and athletics at the same time. Taylor said she was drawn to the school after visiting the campus on Thursday, June 29, and meeting head coach Carter Cassell and the other players.

“[Cassell] kind of reminds me of our high school coach; he’s super energetic and motivational,” the Division 3 commit said. “I talked to the girls, and they really like him, so I think the academics and the coaches are kind of what drew me to the school.”

As a senior, Taylor said she wishes to see people join the SH volleyball program knowing that hard work can do anything.

“I want people in the program to know that anything is possible if you work hard for it,” she said. “I didn’t expect to be a freshman on varsity or to have a lot of this recognition.”

Donaldson said she is confident her captain will succeed anywhere she goes after graduating high school.

“She’s going to come in just like she did here and make waves on the court — she’s going to be a player that a coach can’t do anything but put her on the court because she’s just that reliable,” she said. “She’s going to do amazing things, and she will be a phenomenal representation of the Lancer family and the volleyball program here.”

This story was originally published on The Accolade on October 28, 2023.