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Firebirds Cooled Off by Gators

The Fremont Firebirds varsity volleyball team was happily cooled off by the air-conditioned gym at Castilleja School Tuesday afternoon. However, the on court result was not what the Firebirds were looking for against the Gators. Fremont fell in straight sets 25-16, 25-15, 25-15 in a match that was originally slated to be played as a home game for the Firebirds.

The severe heat wave made for a last second change to being played up in Palo Alto. Whilst the venue change may not have been any excuse for the outcome, the Firebirds did have a legitimate excuse as they were missing 6-foot tall junior Hayley Johnson in this match. Johnson is currently out of the lineup nursing a minor injury and Head Coach Annika Janson expects her left-handed opposite outside hitter to return soon.

Without Johnson in the lineup, it made for tough sledding against Castilleja. The all-girls private school has long had a strong volleyball program, and one of the Gators’ key outside hitters is listed at 6-foot-3-inches. The height advantage was definitely noticeable. Fremont was able to counter in part with their young freshman 6-footer in Natalie Escalera who finished with a couple of kills in her time on the court. The go-to combination though for the Firebirds was senior setter McKenna Johnson feeding fellow senior Nicole Stepanenko.

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“I’ve been playing with her for a couple years now, she’s one of my favorite setters,” chimed Stepanenko on working with Johnson. “She’s a fast thinker out there and very receptive to tips and feedback; she’s a really good setter.”

From her setter position, it’s not always easy to set up teammates when the rotations are off because key players are missing. Perhaps that could have played into the loss as Johnson admits her squad could have been a bit more organized as a unit.

“I feel like we could have been a little more orchestrated,” noted the senior captain. “But I feel like we put up a good fight. We never gave up and kept pushing through.”

The Firebirds have a younger squad this season, so it will be even more important for senior captains like Stepanenko and Johnson to keep the energy up. Fremont has a roster of 13, with just one other senior in Rylie-Phillips Stock, on the roster. Seven of the 13 are either freshmen or sophomores.

Coach Janson is leaning on her seniors to step up in that leadership role because of the youth on this year’s team.

“I told Nicole many times this season at the start, ‘you’re a senior now, you have to take charge and do more for this group,’” recalled Janson. “More and more she’s been hitting from the back row for us, which has definitely been a big help.”

Helping out with some key plays on Tuesday against Castilleja were some of those young players. Sophomore Aditi Jayabalan picked up a couple of nice outside kills and freshman Zoe Shie delivered a perfectly placed serve right over the net that landed just inside the back line.

Fremont, now 4-6 overall in preseason, will hop back in action to start league play on Thursday, Sept. 8 at home against Santa Clara and then at Saratoga Tuesday, Sept. 13.

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