Long Beach chasing another national title

By Walter Villa

If Mizuno Long Beach’s 2011 season were a TV show, it might have been canceled after just a few weeks.

The team’s only libero left the team because of financial issues. The star middle blocker had a conflict with a beach volleyball tournament and parted ways with the club. Two valuable reserves missed the season due to injuries.

The Southern California-based team was down to six players it used for virtually every play. But, as it turns out, those half-dozen kids weren’t half-bad; Mizuno Long Beach went on to win the 16-U Junior Olympics national championship.

“It was tough getting there,” said Justine Wong-Orantes, one of Long Beach’s super six. “We had a lot of obstacles that we had to fight through.”

Added teammate Bria Green: “What we went through made us stronger. It made us trust each other more.”

The good news for Long Beach is that its core six return this season to try to win the 17s national title. Wong-Orantes, a 5-foot-6 junior setter who is considering a scholarship offer from Hawaii, was a first-team All-American.

The MVP at nationals was junior setter Sara Hughes, who has a sand scholarship to Southern Cal. Hughes and Wong-Orantes are frequent beach volleyball partners.

“Sara is one of the hardest-working players I’ve ever coached,” Long Beach coach J.P. Calderon said. “She has a high volleyball IQ and is super dedicated. She can’t get enough of volleyball.”

Calderon said Green, a 6-foot junior and first-team All-American who has committed to Alabama, is one of the fastest-moving middle blockers around. Wong-Orantes calls her a “phenomenal” talent.

“She can play outside, middle, defense -- you name it, she can play it,” her teammate said. “What fascinates me about her is that she always does the right thing.”

The only sophomore on the team is 6-2 outside Frankie Shebby, who Calderon considers one of the nation’s top recruits in her class.

The two other core returners are 5-7 junior outside Sade Mendez and 6-0 junior outside Audrey Castro.

But the big difference from the team that ended last season is that the club now has depth. Among the newcomers are Kristie Hewko, a 6-1 outside who has committed to Loyola Marymount; and Jillian Nobles, a 6-0 middle with power and raw skills.

In addition, Lauren Howard-Chavez, a 6-foot middle who played on the 17s last season, “decided to stay down to play with these guys,” Calderon said.

Calderon said his team lacks great size but makes up for it with speed, defense and great ball control.

“There are five teams out there that I know are better than us right now,” Calderon said. “We’re never good in the beginning. But there is no doubt in my mind we can win it again.”