Aptos High junior Claire Willoughby winds up for a kill against visiting Pacific Collegiate School during a non-league volleyball game on Aug. 30. (Raul Ebio - The Pajaronian)

Aptos High girls volleyball team is making huge steps forward in the ultra-competitive Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League after finding success in what is still a young 2023 season. 

Early results have the Mariners in a second tier behind league leaders Santa Cruz and Harbor high schools, but head coach Hunter Zeng is both rebuilding the program and installing a strong culture.

“This is a young team,” Zeng said. “We have a lot of sophomores and freshmen. A key is just being patient. What I am most proud of is our culture. We have a lot of positivity.”

Senior Julia Spinelli contributes in multiple ways. She is a talented setter and Zeng often uses a 6-2 lineup utilizing Hayley Curatan as a second setter to shift Spinelli to right side, utilizing her hitting skills. 

A 6-2 also gives Aptos three front-row hitters in all rotations.

The attack can be fearsome, especially with freshman Ella Dueck leading the way with a team-best 67 kills and a 3.0 per-set average. 

Dueck has ball-handling skills, excellent mechanics and a strong swing, right in line with her older sisters Peyton and Madison, both of whom starred for the Mariners. 

Peyton is currently the starting libero at nationally-ranked UCLA and Madison played at Cal-Berkeley.

Also up front is the experienced Peyton Westjohn, a superb hitter and second on the stat sheet in kills with 60, and a 2.4 per-set average. 

In the middle, Zeng had to replace two graduated stars in Eve Willis and Jordyn Waite-Ward. He turned to junior Claire Willoughby, who last season was called up from the JV team and is now leading the way.

“Ella [Dueck] has a lot of experience, even though she is only a freshman,” Zeng said. “She has been playing volleyball a long time. You can see it in the decisions she makes. Peyton [Westjohn] is a four-year varsity player, she brings a lot. She is a great hitter, has a great serve and plays great defense. 

Last year was Julia’s [Spinelli] first year on varsity. This year she is more of a leader. She is a really good people-person and makes everyone feel supported.”

Kiara Worley and Jillian Wiesner also contribute in the middle, while Kenzie Smith and Kailey Farris provide depth for the attack. The defense is led by junior libero Chloe Luis.

“We lost a lot of girls, nine seniors,” Spinelli said. “It’s a different group. I can see us being pretty aggressive. Definitely we’ll be up in league this year.”

Defending SCCAL champion Santa Cruz and Harbor are the favorites to win the league title, with Soquel (4-4, 1-3), Scotts Valley (7-5, 2-3) and Aptos filling the next tier. Mount Madonna and San Lorenzo Valley (3-7, 0-5) are a step back. 

The Cardinals and Pirates are at the top of the standings as of Friday. Aptos owns a 10-7 overall record and improved to 3-2 in the SCCAL play following a sweeping win over Scotts Valley.

Both league losses were to both Santa Cruz (11-2, 5-1) and Harbor (15-6, 5-0). 

“Our attacking has gotten better and our blocking is improving,” Spinelli said. “I think we’re gonna fight really hard. We work well together and we are excited to play the best schools like Santa Cruz.”

Mt. Madonna School coach PK McDonald is rebuilding his defense after losses due to graduation. Libero Anya Gonzales leads the back row and Lagi Honeycutt takes those passes and sets a strong offense.

When that duo clicks, the Hawks can unleash a strong hitting corps featuring Eden Fisher, Cy Harris and Emma Monclus. Mt. Madonna has had competitive losses against the middle tier of the league. They are 2-8 overall, 1-3 in the SCCAL.

At the top, Santa Cruz has reloaded after star hitter Hannah Fleming moved to UCLA to play beach volleyball and rising senior middle Jordan Simpkins relocated to Georgia.

Setter Antonia Wilson is back and Natalie Monroe and Lily Pederson lead the attack, with a resurgent middle featuring Daisy Manako and Kelaiah Wynn, and strong defense paced by Summer Pederson at libero.

Harbor succeeded last year with a sophomore-laden crew. Maren O’Farrell, similar to Spinelli, both sets and plays right side to hit. Isla Johnson is the force on the outside and solid on defense as a six-rotation athlete. 

Senior Holly Pendergraft and junior Holly Rejfir bolster a fierce front line, while Dakotah Johnson is solid on the right side and Sabine Kemos leads the middle group for the Pirates. 

Sandy Enriquez is the second setter and Harbor’s defense is led by Gwen Grigsby, who will play next year at Cal State Bakersfield.

Soquel took both Santa Cruz and Harbor to five sets in early-season losses. The Knights are led by junior Jessie Dueck, a cousin of the Dueck family of Aptos. is a UCLA beach commit and provides Soquel with high-end hitting and elite defense. 

Senior Kayla Rhee-Pizano is both an experienced setter and a strong hitter, as she also shifts to right side when Soquel head coach Jake Lee runs a 6-2.

Scotts Valley has become quite a force this year. Grace Emanuelson, back after missing a year due to an ACL injury, leads the attack, with support from Ava Morrison on the outside and Natalie Cash in the middle. 

The Falcons have added depth and confidence, the latter coming from sharing the SCCAL Beach title with Santa Cruz this past spring, the first volleyball banner in school history.

The SCCAL is one of the strongest leagues in the Central Coast Section. Santa Cruz, Soquel and Harbor finished first, second and third, respectively, with a combined 79-29 overall record in 2022. 

The Cardinals and Pirates both reached CCS championship matches and all three qualified for CIF NorCal postseason competition.

People are taking notice of the Mariners, including Soquel coach Jake Lee 

“Aptos is on the rise and could make a little noise,” he said.

Aptos is coming around, as Zeng rebuilds a program that won a state title in 2019 but graduation hit them hard. They are on the way back now. 

“This is a tough league,” Zeng said “Playing the top teams gives us opportunities to learn. We are focusing on the process of building a program and a positive culture. And we will compete hard against everybody.”

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