As Jessica Eldridge flies skyward for a resounding block, gravity lets her pink-toned hair down for a moment, revealing a ‘7’ tattooed on the back of her neck.
It’s a smaller, permanent copy of the number on her uniform. The Granada Hills High center blocker started playing volleyball in the third grade, she said, because her mother encouraged her. And her mother’s lucky number was 17, so Eldridge chose to wear No. 7 – the “little child” of 17 in her young mind.
“It reminds me of my mother and is quite a lucky number in many cultures,” Eldridge said of the tattoo. “I wanted to honor and respect that and bring some happiness into my life.”
About a decade later, Eldridge has never worn another number. But this might be the best version of No 7 Granada Hills has seen – and that’s a key reason Granada Hills are The Times’ team to watch in the City Section.
“Our core should be strong this year,” said longtime Highlanders coach Tom Harp.
In the summer league games against Van Nuys Grant and West Hills Chaminade on July 18, Eldridge was all over the court – reaching over the net to deflect soft attacks and climbing an invisible ladder to peak sets from the middle.
With a lanky 6-foot frame, Eldridge was the team’s top blocker last season and has worked with setter Mason Kelly to time her attacks. If that relationship blossoms and Eldridge can use her reach to consistently beat opposing teams’ block, it will improve Granada Hills’ scoring chances.
“I feel really fortunate and blessed to have this opportunity to make such a big impact on the pitch,” Eldridge said of filling the center. “It’s definitely a big responsibility but I’m willing to fill those shoes and I’m happy to do so.”
That’s why, according to Lake Balboa Birmingham coach LeAnne Bennett-Riley, she’s a player to watch in the City Section, an area where there are fewer and fewer strong middle players. Of 28 Open Division All-City selections last season, only three were middle blockers.
“If you can stop the other team’s mids, you’re good,” said Bennett-Riley. “If the other team doesn’t have dominant mids, you have a chance.”
However, Granada Hills is stacked past the middle. All-City outside hitter Hannah Bernstein and her arsenal of shots are back. So does sly senior setter Kelly and junior top server Valeria Bellodas-Lazo.
All six City Section coaches, The Times spoke with Granada Hills at or near the top of predictions for this fall’s best teams. On paper, placement is easy. Granada Hills is bringing back three All-City first-team selections from last year – no other program is returning more than one.
“The middle is strong. Outside is strong. Setter is strong,” said Bennett-Riley, giggling. “They’re kind of strong in every position.”
“It’s always the best version of Granada that we’re going to play,” said Woodland Hills Taft coach Arman Mercado.
This year’s version is particularly motivated. They made it to the City Section Open Division championships two years in a row, but fell to Palisades in 2020 and Venice in 2021.
Bernstein, a member of both teams, put a hand to her heart as she recalled last year’s loss to the Gondoliers.
“That hurt,” she said with a wry smile.
Dressed to the last detail in Granada Hill’s green, lHarp sauntered by as she discussed the fortunes of her team.
“I hope you tell [The Times] we’re not very good yet,” Harp told Bernstein. “I don’t want to be on other people’s bulletin boards.”
He might be trying to avoid a target, but even the stoic harp conveyed his optimism.
“My expectations are pretty high right now,” he said.
Rounding out the rest of the top 5 ahead of the first competition on the City calendar on August 12:
The senior duo of Prior Borick and Julia Bazylevych are ready to wreak havoc. The two won the City Section’s inaugural beach volleyball pairs championship that spring, which has helped give them their passing and shooting variety in the gym.
“These two Taft girls are going to do a lot of damage to the City Section,” said San Pedro coach Sean Zuvich.
The first words that come out of coach Carlos Gray’s mouth when asked about his team are: “The transformation is real.”
Nine seniors graduated in 2022. But star outside hitter Ava Pearce is set to return after tearing her cruciate ligament in last season’s first tournament, and last season’s kills leader Carly Bloom is back. Also, well… it’s Palisades.
“They’re always somewhere close to the championship,” Harp said.
4. Woodland Hills El Camino Real
The Royals were in a solid position last season – stocked with high-level talent while fielding a strong junior league.
Some talent is gone, but the return to Grace Hazelton and setter Charlotte Wilson give coach Alyssa Lee the lead and have been ranked by Mercado as two of the best in the section to watch.
Can Venice bring it back from last season’s championship breakout? Probably not.
“For a program like Venice to finally win the top division championship, it took a lot of dominoes to fall in the right places,” said coach Allen Hunt.
Strong leadership set up these dominoes, and the gondoliers must rebuild after the majority of the team graduates. All is not lost, however – Biko Hollie was one of the best wingers in town as a junior and Venice still have some young talent like junior Tinoa Woodward-Hart.
Also in the mix
– Chatsworth: Junior Lauren Pun could be one of the best setters in town, according to coach Sina Aghassy.
—Carson: Trying to get back to the perennial form of the last decade.
—Verdugo Hills: Cousins Yahaira and Ana Vazquez form a dynamic setter-middle tandem.
-San Pedro: Coach Sean Zuvich believes senior Kennedy Kordic — the sister of former San Pedro baseball star Dylan Kordic — is the best sweeper in town.
– LA Girls Academic Leadership Academy (GALA): Mercado believes the sophomore program, which played in Division IV last year, could get an Open Division selection in the fall.
– Sherman Oaks CES: Senior signing Stormy Grant-Gorence, coming from Southern Section powerhouse Chatsworth Sierra Canyon, raises the Knights’ ceiling.
https://www.latimes.com/sports/highschool/story/2022-08-05/city-section-volleyball-preview-granada-hills-team-to-beat Granada Hills looks like the team to beat in City Section volleyball