Torrey Pines eventually came out on top after exciting 2019 HS volleyball season

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Jess Mruzik HS POY-Jess Mruzik-Mercy HS volleyball
Jess Mruzik, hitting in the September final of the 2019 FIVB Girls' U18 World Championship in Egypt. Her Mercy team still did well without her/FIVB photo

For top players, especially in Texas, there was no time to rest when the 2019 high school season got under way.

With the USA Volleyball Girls Junior National Championships finishing this past July 6 and defending Texas 6A state champion Flower Mound opening its high school campaign on August 6, there was exactly a month between the end of club season and the start of the high school campaign.

And that same Flower Mound — with junior outsides Kylee Cox and Angelique Cyr returning — was right in the thick of the national championship conversation as the 2019 season began. The Jaguars were there along with some of the usual suspects in recent years. Programs like Assumption of Kentucky, and Redondo Union and Mater Dei of California.

One school that was absent from the discussion but soon made its way to the top of the list was Padua Franciscan of Ohio. Ultimately, it was Torrey Pines of California that finished on top of VolleyballMag.com’s final national rankings. And we’ll get to what a wild ride it was for the Falcons to have landed on top of the high school volleyball world in 2019.

But first …

High school starts off the same way every season. Some of the top players spent the summer participating on USA youth national teams. so there are always elite high school teams impacted by the absence of their stud contributors. Six schools appearing in VolleyballMag’s preseason rankings had players named to the USA Girls Youth National Team, including preseason No. 2 Redondo Union, which was missing junior setter Kami Miner, who was playing at the FIVB Girls’ U18 World Championship.

That USA team, led by MVP Jess Mruzik of Mercy of Michigan, captured gold in Egypt. But while that was happening, their schools back in the States were trying to tack on victories without them.

Redondo Union ended the year at No. 7 after eventually falling to Mater Dei in the California Open Division state playoffs. Redondo defeated Mater Dei two weeks earlier for the CIF Southern Section Division 1 championship but the loss to the Monarchs in state closed the Sea Hawks’ season at 38-4.

Kami Miner (6) was front and center for a team photo in Egypt/FIVB photo

Redondo lost three times without Miner, falling to Torrey Pines in non-league action and to James Logan of California and Leon of Florida at the Durango Fall Classic. But before that, Redondo, with Miner on hand, Mater Dei captured first place at the Ann Kang Invitational in Hawai’i. There, Redondo defeated Byron Nelson of Texas, featuring Paige Flickinger, in the final. Byron Nelson was the eventual Texas 6A state champ.

Mercy, meanwhile, was victorious in its first six matches playing with Mruzik. Mruzik then left for her USA duties and Mercy proceeded to win its next 16 outings without her. Then, in Mercy’s second-to-last match without her, the Marlins were upended by Lowell. At 58-1, it proved to be Mercy’s only loss as the Marlins eventually earned revenge. They downed Lowell in October and then once more in the Division 1 state final.

Senior Lexi Rodriguez from Sterling of Illinois was one of two defensive players on the Youth National Team. Sterling (36-6) opened the year as the favorite for the 3A state championship and ended that way after beating Joliet Catholic in the final. However, it was a rough ride without Rodriguez, as four of the six setbacks occurred in her absence. The Golden Warriors lost twice with Rodriguez, to Pleasant Valley and Normal University. The first happened without senior outside Brooklyn Borum. Normal was the only opponent to beat Sterling with both Rodriguez and Borum present.

Junior Lindsay Krause from Skutt Catholic in Nebraska was another outside hitter on the Youth National Team. Skutt Catholic (34-5) capped its year by winning its fifth-straight Class B state championship. A trio of losses came when Krause was gone. The SkyHawks dropped contests to Papillion-La Vista, Millard North and Elkhorn South. Twice Skutt lost with Krause, once to Marist of Illinois in the Asics Challenge final and another to St. Thomas Aquinas of Kansas, an opponent Skutt defeated without Krause in September. Aquinas wound up the 5A state champ in Kansas, while Marist lost in the Class 4A state semifinals to Benet Academy.

As for the state of Kansas, Lansing was among the top contenders in 5A, thanks in part to senior middle Caroline Crawford. Her absence was felt as four of the Lions’ five losses came with her in Egypt. Two happened against Aquinas, the only team to beat Lansing with Crawford available. It came in the 5A state semifinals as Lansing took third place.

The one school that managed to prevail in the absence of its key player was Eagan of Minnesota. The Wildcats were without junior setter Kennedi Orr during that time. Eagan (36-1) not only avoided losing without Orr, the Wildcats navigated their way to the Class 3A state final without losing at all. Yet, Wayzata was waiting to spoil the perfect season, delivering Eagan its’ only defeat and keeping the Wildcats as runner ups for the third straight time.

By the time the high school season was winding down, only Redondo Union remained as a serious national-championship contender from that group. It was surprising because when the Sea Hawks suffered losses to James Logan and Leon at the Durango Fall Classic, any talk of finishing the season on top was far-fetched. At that point, another team was emerging and holding the driver’s seat.

Padua Franciscan was coming off its first season playing in Ohio’s top division. The Bruins went 27-2, falling to three-time state champion Ursuline Academy in the Division 1 final. With players like senior outside Samantha Ott, junior setter Kate Mihacevich and junior outside Maria Futey returning, the Bruins were certainly one of the favorites for the Division 1 crown in 2019. Yet, there wasn’t talk of Padua Franciscan rising to national championship contender. That changed rather quickly.

Padua Franciscan attended one of the bigger national tournaments — the Louisville Invitational Volleyball Tournament. It was there Padua struck. First the Bruins uprooted Mater Dei in the semifinals. Two days earlier, Mater Dei outlasted Assumption in five sets. Next it was Padua knocking off Assumption in the final, as the Bruins claimed the LIVT title and asserted themselves in the national championship picture by defeating two top preseason contenders.

Fast forward to November.

Padua Franciscan defeated highly nationally ranked Mount Notre Dame and rising sophomore Carly Hendrickson in the Division 1 state semifinals to improve to 28-0. All that was left between Padua and the national championship was defeating St. Francis DeSales the following day in the final. However, it didn’t go down that way. Instead, St. Francis DeSales sprung the upset and shocked Padua Franciscan. The Bruins’ only loss of the season not only kept them from the state title but the national championship as well.

It also caused havoc in the race for the national championship. It was no longer clear cut with Padua Franciscan out of the running. The door was opened for teams like Benet Academy and Marist of Illinois, and a handful of Southern California teams in Redondo Union, Mater Dei, Marymount, Cathedral Catholic and Torrey Pines.

In between Padua Franciscan winning the LIVT and getting stunned by St. Francis DeSales in the Ohio state final, there were a couple of major tournaments to take place. Following the LIVT, next up was the Durango Fall Classic in Las Vegas. That’s where Cathedral Catholic made shockwaves as the Dons brought home the school’s first Durango trophy after downing Mercy of Kentucky in the final. Winning the Durango title is always prestigious because of the caliber of programs in the field and 2019 was no different. The Dons owned the event that featured Assumption, Mater Dei, Redondo Union, Marymount, Torrey Pines and Mercy. Though Cathedral Catholic had lost to Torrey Pines twice already at that point, winning Durango was a big reason the Dons were in the mix once Padua lost.

Two weeks later, Cathedral Catholic was at it again at the Nike TOC in Phoenix. It was another strong field that also featured So Cal foes Marymount and Mater Dei. The Dons fell to Marymount in the quarterfinals as the Sailors went on to beat Mater Dei in the final for the second consecutive year. Like Cathedral at Durango, Marymount taking home the crown at the Nike TOC placed the Sailors in the discussion once Padua fell. In fact, with Cathedral Catholic and Marymount winning such major national tournaments, it opened a path for all the So Cal schools alive in the Open Division state playoffs. Whichever school captured the Open Division title, assuming it was from So Cal, was likely going to have the strongest argument.

The main threat was in Illinois, where Marist and Benet Academy were putting together their respective cases.

The last big national tournament of the season was the Asics Challenge in Chicago, where Marist rose up and claimed the trophy by downing Skutt Catholic in the final. Assumption was also in the field and it was that type of competition that placed Marist in the thick of it. Marist’s case only grew when it avenged an earlier loss to Benet Academy following the Asics Challenge. The sides met again in the 4A state semifinals, with Benet Academy sweeping before eventually winning out by topping Wheaton-Warrenville South in the final. Benet Academy ended 41-1 and was right there in the conversation. Yet, in the end, once Torrey Pines (39-2) won out in California, there was no denying the strength of schedule the Falcons faced.

Torrey Pines went 3-0 against Durango Fall Classic champion Cathedral Catholic; 1-0 against Nike TOC champ Marymount; 1-0 against both Redondo Union and Mater Dei, the CIF-SS champ and runner up; 1-0 against Hawai’i state champ Kamehameha; plus it won the top prize in California by beating Marin Catholic in the Open Division final. Torrey Pines’ losses came to La Costa Canyon and Vista Murrieta, the latter happening at Durango. Torrey Pines defeated La Costa Canyon later on, while Vista Murrieta eventually captured the California Division 1 state championship.

It was with all that Torrey Pines arrived at the top of VolleyballMag’s national rankings.

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