Mustang Dynasty: Mira Costa’s girls beach volleyball team seeks to add its streak of 69 straight victories and five Southern Pacific titles with an historic first State Championship
Mira Costa’s girls beach volleyball team seeks to add its streak of 69 straight victories and five Southern Pacific titles with an historic first State Championship
by Randy Angel
In 2011, when Gino Grajeda envisioned the possibility of having beach volleyball competition for high school girls, Mira Costa High School was an instant selection to be among the first teams asked to play in what was to become the Interscholastic Beach Volleyball League.
After all, the campus is in Manhattan Beach, known as the mecca of beach volleyball and host of the most prestigious domestic and longest running beach tournament in the world — the Manhattan Beach Open. The school has also produced an extensive list of beach volleyball greats, both men and women.
Grajeda, a former athletic administrator and physical education department head at Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles, understood the concept of operating scholastic programs to appeal to school administrators and essentially follow CIF guidelines.
“The administration of AAU Beach Volleyball programs over the years combining the resources of operating an interscholastic program to form the IBVL allowed me to expand the program over the years,” explained Grajeda, Commissioner of the IBVL. “From 2012 to the following season, we saw growth to several divisions and a full playoff schedule, including the addition of boys’ beach volleyball in the fall.”
Mira Costa joined seven other Los Angeles County teams — Carson, El Segundo, Harvard-Westlake, Marymount, Palos Verdes and Valencia — during the inaugural season in the Spring of 2012. They have been the team to beat ever since.
Although Mira Costa lost to Valencia in the finals that season, it was the last defeat the Mustangs have suffered during competition in the Southern Pacific region, which has grown to include 45 teams this season spanning an area from Arroyo Grande south to San Clemente.
Last Saturday, at Ocean Park in Santa Monica, Mira Costa captured its fifth consecutive IBVL Southern Pacific championship while running its impressive winning streak to 69 matches.
Mira Costa’s dominance in beach volleyball was never questioned this season. Running the table to win the Bay Division that included three teams to reach the semifinals along with playoff entry Redondo, the Mustangs earned a first-round bye before defeating Sierra Canyon (Chatsworth) 3-0 in the second round Friday.
In IBVL competition, each school fields three pairs each and each pair plays a match (to three games if necessary) until the winning schools has 2 of the 3 winning pairs. If a school has already secured two wins, the third match is not finished.
Mira Costa swept Notre Dame (Sherman Oaks) 2-0 in the quarterfinals before defeating Laguna Beach and Palisades Charter (Pacific Palisades) by the same scores.
The Mustangs now have an opportunity to become the first school in history to win the IBVL State Championship thanks to the growth of beach volleyball and the opportunity for girls attain college scholarships after the NCAA began Division 1 competition in 2012.
Mira Costa opens its quest for a state title when the inaugural tournament is played Saturday at Metro Beach Center in Chatsworth. The Mustangs open play against Northern California champion Branson (Ross) at 10 a.m. Southern Pacific runner-up Pacific Palisades takes on San Diego champion Point Loma in the other semifinal at 11 a.m. The championship match will be held at 1 p.m.
Except for freshman Olivia Bakos, who is beginning the process of recruiting trips to universities, the five other Mira Costa players to win the crown on Saturday have committed to NCAA Division 1 beach volleyball programs.
Playing for the Mustang’s No. 1 team were seniors Alexia Inman and Maddie Micheletti who will be teammates at UC Berkeley.
Senior Sunny Villapando (Stanford) and junior Piper Monk-Heidrich (UCLA) competed as the No. 2 team and senior Rio Frohoff (Tulane) and Bakos completed the Mustang squad.
Mira Costa girls beach volleyball Booster Club President Bill Inman said along with the 69 wins in a row, he is equally impressed with the number of players who are — and will be — playing NCAA beach volleyball.
“This season we have nine NCAA committed girls in the program that only fields six at a time,” Inman said. “It would be like having nine NCAA committed players on a high school basketball team, which would be a very strong basketball team and probably unheard of.”
Also in Mira Costa’s program this season are senior Chloe Newton (Washington), juniors Kelli Barry, Georgia Kobel (Arizona), Karina Myszkowski (USC), Lily Snyder and Lea Ungar (Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, beach and indoor), sophomore Riley Hazelrigg and freshmen Maya Harvey and Kate Reilly.
“I’ve been fortunate to have been given a good group of talented players,” Mira Costa head coach Eric Fonoimoana said. “I’m a strategist and my job is to put the pieces of the puzzle together and find the right partnerships. It will be hard to replace our four seniors, but we have probably the three best freshmen in the country with Olivia Bakos, Maya Harvey and Kate Reilly.”
Fonoimoana, a beach volleyball gold medalist at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, is excited about the expansion of beach volleyball for girls and the possibility to become the first team to win a State Championship. “The growth of the sport has been awesome, not just for the beach volleyball but for the student athlete,” Fonoimoana said. “Since we can’t train in the dark, when the sun goes down, it allows the players to experience a normal teenage lifestyle including homework and family dinners without having to spend countless hours in a gym.”
For Inman and Micheletti, continuing the winning tradition at Mira Costa was of utmost importance after the two paid their dues before making the varsity squad as juniors last season.
“Having the honor of playing as the number one pair with Maddie was probably one of the most exciting parts of my career at Mira Costa,” Inman said. “Winning for the fifth year straight was really, really special. Ever since we have been freshman we have seen how impactful this program has been for all the players in it and the people in the community. We have a legacy we must maintain, so being able to notch another year onto it makes us all feel very accomplished.
“This year felt like a new generation of Mira Costa Beach, with a heavy underclass team. We had graduated all the players who had built the base of the program. We felt like this year was a true test of how the future of Mira Costa Beach would be. By winning for the fifth year, it continued to build up our dynasty.”
Micheletti said she is proud of her accomplishment and believes the camaraderie within the Mustang program is a credit to its success.
“Alexia and I worked so hard the entire season to get to the point of being No. 1 team,” Micheletti said. “The group of girls this year are so great and we have so much fun together, we haven’t felt the pressure to win because we know we can get the job done. I think that has been the key to getting this far into the win streak because we are so close. Being a part of such an amazing and prestigious program has been so great throughout high school, because not only do I get to see my best friends almost every day at practice, I get to play against some of the best players in the country, which I will never take for granted.”
Micheletti also feels playing at Chatsworth will be bittersweet.
“We can’t wait for Chatsworth, but it will definitely be emotional because it will be the last time playing together for the four Costa seniors. Hopefully, we’ll bring the title of State Champions back to Manhattan Beach.”
Villapando remembers feeling the pressure of winning as a freshman.
“We knew about the legacy at Costa and to win the championship all four years is exciting,” Villapando said. “It’s really cool to be part of the team’s history and keep the winning streak going. It’s difficult to stay on top, but I’ve been so confident in my teammates and our team is so stacked with talent that even if we drop a game, winning two out of three is in our favor.”
This year’s IBVL championship was the third for Monk-Heidrich, was has been a varsity starter since her freshman year.
“Winning the title was a wonderful experience, especially since it was my third time playing in the IBVL championships for Costa,” Monk-Heidrich said. “I think the key to our winning streak has been staying consistent and confident. We have always kept fighting in games no matter what.”
She looks forward to becoming the team leader next season.
“I am so excited to help the younger girls work to get better and continue the MCHS legacy while I also improve my skills right beside them.”
Like Monk-Heidrich, Bakos was one of six starters in an IBVL championship match as a freshman. She admits feeling a little bit of pressure but was confident in her team.
“Rio (Frohoff) helped calm me down and the seniors were so welcoming to our freshmen,” Bakos said. “It’s amazing and such an honor to be part of this team.”
Bakos, who has enjoyed tremendous success on the youth beach volleyball circuit, particularly with Laguna Beach’s Peri Brennan, said playing for Mira Costa was a new experience.
“I really learned how to be a teammate,” Bakos explained. “Practicing with a group of players every day was fun. I also feel I’ve improved my blocking, defense and serving. Eric has helped elevate my game to the next level.”
Many of the older players on this year’s Mira Costa team consider former Mustang Skylar Caputo as a player they looked up to. Now a sophomore standout at Pepperdine, Caputo helped lead the Waves to the NCAA finals this season.
“I have always looked up to Skylar Caputo,” Monk-Heidrich said. “We grew up family friends and she’s been an inspiration to me for a long time. It was also a great experience to play on the same team as her my freshman year.”
Villapando also considered Caputo as a role model on the court.
“I’ve learned something from every upper class because there have been so many talented players,” Villapando said. “Skylar Caputo was a player I admired because she was always so calm and collected.”
Many Mira Costa players, including all six who competed in the IBVL championship, train with Elite Beach Volleyball where they are coached by Fonoimoana, Holly McPeak and Barbra Fontana, all members of the Beach Volleyball Hall of Fame and former indoor stars at Mira Costa.
Villapando believes having so many players in the Elite program has helped build team chemistry in Mira Costa’s program and enjoys playing for Fonoimoana.
“Eric is always calm. He has the same reaction win or lose,” Villapando said. “He always has something to say that will help us improve our game.”
Fonoimoana sees another advantage of having Elite players on the high school team.
“We (Elite) are a skills and drills club so our players train on those aspects from November to March when the IBVL begins,” Fonoimoana said. “We do very few drills at a Costa practice. It’s all about competition. I don’t play favorites so the players know they must earn the right to play. We have a competition court where players must win to earn a starting sport. Our practices are intense, but that type of pressure situation prepares them for the actual matches against other schools. We also have the luxury of training in the deepest sands, wind and sun that can’t be duplicated anywhere in the world.”
Like Fonoimoana, Grajeda is excited to watch the growth of beach volleyball and the IBVL’s first State Championship.
The San Diego District began one year after the Southern Pacific fielding eight teams in 2013 and has increased to four divisions this year.
“Northern California had one division (league) in the Bay Area and was new this year,” Grajeda said. “The district also invited several schools to bring a team to an open event urging more schools to add programs in the Bay Area in 2018. This also prompted the Sacramento area schools to form divisions of play next season and be a part of the Northern California IBVL.”
All playoffs results, past results and history can be found at ibvl.org.
by Randy Angel