Palisades overcame uncertainty and doubt to win another volleyball title

·4 min read
Palisades players (l-r) Kaia Kanan, Alexis Hogan and Maddie Neilson encourage each other.
Palisades players Kaia Kanan, left, Alexa Hogan and Maddie Neilson encourage each other before the third set of the City Section Open Division championship match. (Steve Galluzzo / For The Times)

Winning the City Section girls volleyball championship is hardly news at Palisades High. The Dolphins have done so 31 times since the CIF sanctioned the sport in 1973.

Palisades’ latest title came Saturday in a three-set sweep of Granada Hills, and what made it unique from all the others is that the Dolphins got to celebrate on their home floor, even if the gym was just one-fourth full.

Before this year the City final was played in late November at a neutral site, but the girls season did not start until early April because of the pandemic and matches were played outdoors. As with all other sports the higher-seeded team got to host all the way through the playoffs. Palisades certainly seemed to benefit from home-court advantage, dropping only one set in its three playoff matches.

In the end, though, players were happy they got to have a season, which was up in the air for much of the 2020-21 school year.

“Overall, outside it’s a whole different game,” Palisades junior setter Kaia Kanan said. “It’s harder to jump, harder to move, the ball’s lighter and you have to deal with the sun and wind. A lot of us play beach, but it’s still way different than the grass."

The uncertainty surrounding the pandemic and whether high school sports would be played at all was another challenge for athletes. Not to mention that many sports were overlapping, creating scheduling conflicts and limited practice time.

“There were so many difficulties,” Kanan admitted. “When are we going back to the gym? What days do we have to get tested? What days the boys [volleyball] get to use the gym, what days basketball gets to use it. There was a lot being thrown at us that we had no control of, lots of things messing with our season, but we didn’t let any of it shut us down.”

Palisades suffered its only setback early in the season outdoors at Woodland Hills Taft and Kanan said the turning point was when teams were allowed to start playing indoors. In fact, the Dolphins closed the season winning 42 of their last 43 sets.

“We’re a really good team indoors and we’re a young team but we also have some older players and with a younger team it was a lot harder to mesh outside,” Kanan said. “I’ve played this sport a long time, but never experienced playing indoor volleyball outdoors. So when we finally went back inside we were all used to the environment and we pushed ourselves to make the most of the time we had.”

Senior middle blocker Alexa Hogan remembers where she was the moment she found out that there would be a season: “We were on Zoom and I was half-asleep in my bed!”

Granada Hills' Hannah Bernstein spikes the ball through Palisades blockers Kaia Kanan and Alexa Hogan.
Granada Hills' Hannah Bernstein spikes the ball through Palisades blockers Kaia Kanan and Alexa Hogan in the City Section Open Division girls volleyball final. (Steve Galluzzo / For The Times)

Hogan, who will head to UC Davis on a full scholarship in the fall, also lamented about playing outside.

“Even though Kaia is a great setter sometimes I’d go to hit the ball and the wind would push it way over here to where I had to adjust my swing in midair,” Hogan said. “Honestly, winning City has made my whole senior year. Prom was yesterday and I told my coach I’m getting my hair done, I’m getting my nails done so I’m not coming to practice."

The hardest part for Palisades coach Carlos Gray, who also assists with the boys program, was not practice but getting players to practice.

“The kids weren’t on campus, they had virtual studies, then had to hustle over here for random practices — it was tough,” Gray said. “Also, not having JV this year meant I’d have 18-24 girls coming at a time and it was a real challenge getting everyone enough court time."

For Granada Hills senior opposite Nikki Eaves, who graduated days earlier, the season was a success even though it ended in defeat.

“It was so sad thinking we wouldn’t have a season,” Eaves said. “Playing on grass is a lot different … you worry about rolling your ankles when you dive and it’s harder to control passes. Also it felt weird coming to their house for the finals, but I’ve been in the program since my freshman year, so winning our league and making the finals with all of my teammates one last time was very special."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.