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  • José Luis Villegas /

    José Luis Villegas Defending Sac-Joaquin Section Division I champion St. Francis makes sure its formula for success includes laughter. From left to right in front, Hannah Lissera (4) lifts Dana Vestman; Loni Kreun wraps her arms around Allie Wegener (12); and Ali Koumelis (14) carries Gabby Palmeri. Behind them are Allison Child, left, and Lea Felton.

  • José Luis Villegas /

    José Luis Villegas The Troubadours' Lea Felton goes up for a spike during practice. St. Francis has 11 players back from its section title team last year.

  • José Luis Villegas /

    Loni Kreun, right, and Ali Koumelis share a light moment. Practice at St. Francis often stokes the players' competitive fire.

  • José Luis Villegas /

    Loni Kreun, middle, sets up a shot at practice. Bella Vista coach Troy Songer said the Troubadours "could have two starting lineups that would match up with anyone else."

Preps Plus: Wins, grins keep coming for St. Francis volleyball team

Published: Thursday, Sep. 13, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1C
Last Modified: Thursday, Sep. 13, 2012 - 6:26 pm

Everything adds up for a big season for St. Francis High School's volleyball team.

The Troubadours return 11 of the 12 players from last season's Sac-Joaquin Section Division I championship squad, and the roster is stacked with future collegiate players.

And much like Tuesday's Holy Court victory over rival Christian Brothers, the stands are filled with fans to watch the area's No. 1-ranked team.

That ear-piercing screech that sounds much like a pterodactyl filling the gym? Now that just doesn't add up.

But that's just part of the team's chemistry of talent, determination and hijinks that makes it unique and a favorite to not only repeat as section champion but compete for a second state title since 2005.

During practices, which can become very heated, junior middle blocker Megan Sullivan is known to belt out a screech that would make Chuck Norris take cover from what surely is a flying prehistoric giant on the loose.

But when Sullivan squawks, it's not to intimidate – it's to entice laughter and a little comedic relief from the stress of intense practices.

"No one can really do it like her," St. Francis coach Alynn Wright said.

And few area programs do volleyball quite like St. Francis. The Troubadours are 14-0 this season and didn't drop a set until midway through Wednesday night's match at second-ranked El Camino. St. Francis beat the Eagles 3-1.

The ultimate goal, of course, is to improve on last season's effort. St. Francis compiled a 38-6 record in 2011 and won the section championship before being bounced out of the NorCal playoffs in the second round by Menlo-Atherton.

The season-ending loss was especially hard on Paige Folger, then the Troubadours' only senior who is now at Gonzaga.

"I don't think any of us are ever going to forget the look on Paige's face," senior captain Gabby Palmeri said. "She was not ready for the season to be over. And neither were we. It hit her and all of us."

With 20 players on this season's roster, the team is by far the largest in the area, and practices can break into a matchup of what is arguably two of the best teams in the region.

"Some of the best volleyball you see is day in and day out in our gym," Wright said. "At the end of practice, when we are scrimmaging and (losers run sprints) are on the line – it's amazing."

In years past, pitting the backups against the starters didn't make for very much competition. But with a starting lineup that has two standout juniors in Lea Felton and Ali Koumelis, the "B" squad is filled with upwards of five returning players from last season.

The deep squad – led by seniors Palmeri (committed to Pepperdine), Hannah Liserra (Seattle University) and Dana Vestman (Montana State) – makes for spirited team competition on a daily basis, which intensifies the desire for an undefeated season.

"They are deep in talent," Bella Vista coach Troy Songer said. "You could have two starting lineups that would match up with anyone else."

Songer isn't alone in his praise of St. Francis' program.

"They are the cream of the crop, by far the best team in the area," Whitney coach James Todd said.

But while there is plenty of praise heaped upon them from the competition, the internal pressure remains for the Troubadours.

"I think we know we are a great team and we know what we expect," Palmeri said. "We understand there are expectations out there, but we have our own standards and what we expect of ourselves."

But before that pressure to succeed boils over, the Troubadours always take time to let off a little steam and remember it's just a game played by fun-loving high school student-athletes.

Sullivan stops practice with a screech and runs throughout the gym, her arms flapping like giant wings. Drills are stopped and the girls sit in a circle, legs crossed, and begin playing the most obscure playground game around.

Palmeri calls it "space football." The game can only be described as, well … it can't be described.

But it's that unique ability to suddenly break away from the intensity of practice for a game of laughter and then jump back into the heat of scrimmage that bonds this team.

"We are good at turning it on and off," Palmeri said. "There are times when we are joking around, then in an instant we can turn it on and set on the goal."

Other top volleyball players to watch

Taylor Nelson, Jr., Setter, Granite Bay

• The daughter of Sierra College volleyball coach Vera Nelson, Taylor is already an accomplished club and beach player.

Maddy Deters, Jr., Outside hitter, Granite Bay

• A smart and powerful hitter, Deters is also the vocal leader for the Grizzlies.

Sara Schell, Sr., Outside hitter, Bear River

• The tall leader for the Bruins was a huge reason behind Bear River's breakthrough season in 2011.

Caroline Sipiora, Sr., Outside hitter, Vista del Lago

• The Utah commit is coming back from a torn ACL suffered in February and is crucial to her team's success.

Michelle Hernandez, Sr., Setter, Bella Vista

• The Broncos' assists leader plays her position more like a quarterback directing her teammates.

Cassidy Denny, Sr., Outside hitter, El Camino

• The powerful hitter was a huge reason the Eagles repeated as Chris Craft tournament champs Saturday at Oak Ridge.

Maddie Merlino, Soph., Setter, Rio Americano

• The 5-foot-9 Merlino leads the section with 273 assists through nine matches for the Raiders.

Devin Herenda, Soph., Setter, El Camino

• Considered for national awards after her freshman season, Herenda is one of the area's talented sophomore setters.

Kelechi Ohiri, Jr., Middle blocker, Monterey Trail

• After recording 85 kills and 51 blocks last season, the 6-1 Ohiri is a leader for the underrated Mustangs.

– Trevor Horn

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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