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February 9, 2023

Live Oak girls volleyball team starts BVAL West Valley title quest

After a tough 2021 season in which it finished second to last in the Blossom Valley Athletic League’s middle-tier Santa Teresa Division, the Live Oak High girls volleyball team got demoted to the league’s lower West Valley Division this season. 

Given their history as a proud program and early-season results, the Acorns don’t intend to stay there long. Live Oak entered the week 2-1, including taking crosstown rival Sobrato High—which competes in the BVAL’s top Mount Hamilton Division—to the full five sets earlier in the season. 

“The team struggled last year, but the girls are learning how to compete,” said Tait Rafat, who has a distinguished coaching career and is in his first season at Live Oak. “I thought the program could use some direction, and there’s a pretty good group of junior kids who are competitive.”

That includes Rafat’s daughter, Maya, who is a returning starter at setter in the team’s 6-2 offense. Rafat possesses a versatile game that includes being able to score points off a strong arm swing. 

“We lean on her because she’s got a lot of club background and she brings a component to the table knowing the rotations,” Tait said. “She’s super solid on the serve and serve-receive, and her leadership skills are a desirable attribute for sure.” 

Maya shares captain duties with fellow junior Ana Saulala, who is the team’s best offensive weapon and can finish points with efficiency if the team’s passing is on point. Against Sobrato, Saulala recorded many of her kills hitting from well off the net and using precision to deliver the ball off the Sobrato block. 

Of course, if Saulala needs to hammer a ball, she can do that as well. 

“Ana has a good arm swing and will carry the load as our primary offensive player,” Tait Rafat said. “She’s also a strong server, strong on serve-receive and is improving on defense.”

Junior outside hitter Anna Guenet has the ability to terminate points and is also solid on serve-receive, Rafat said. Versatile senior Stephanie Leonard and newcomer Mara DiFrancesco should be valuable contributors as well. 

Leonard plays setter and right side and will be counted upon in a couple of key areas of the game. 

“She’s contributing well this year and not only will have to lead when setting, but she’s going to have to play solid defense and offense for us to be successful,” Rafat said. “So far, she’s doing a good job for us.”

DiFrancesco is primarily a softball player and doesn’t have a ton of experience playing volleyball, but she’s adjusting to the speed of the game well and having an impact. 

“Mara is coming along well and the faster she improves, the quicker we’ll be better for sure,” Rafat said. 

Sophomore Ella King is a player on the rise and fills a vital role on the team in that she plays middle, outside and right-side setter. 

“She’s doing it all,” Rafat said. “As the season progresses, we’ll be expecting her to help fill in those offensive voids as well. We’re looking for big things from her in the future also.”

With just 10 players on the roster, Rafat said everyone needs to be ready to contribute when their name is called. 

“We’ll need quality minutes from all of them,” he said. 

Rafat was pleasantly surprised in Live Oak taking Sobrato to the full five sets. It served as a confidence booster because the Bulldogs have a strong team and should finish among the top four in the Mount Hamilton. 

“The Sobrato game was fun to be a part of because you don’t have to motivate the girls in that match because it’s one of those long-time rivalries,” he said. “We had an opportunity to roll over (after dropping the first two games), but the girls battled and showed a lot.”

Rafat has been pleased so far because the players have been “buying in since I came on board,” he said. The team would love to earn a spot in the Central Coast Section playoffs, and interestingly enough, the demotion to the West Valley Division probably gives the Acorns the best chance of accomplishing their goal. 

That’s because automatic berths are awarded to the top three teams in the Mount Hamilton, the champions from the Santa Teresa North and South Division, and the West Valley. The West Valley, while competitive, isn’t as tough as the Santa Teresa Divisions. 

“We’re going to try really hard to push for (the) league (title),” Rafat said. 

Junior Anna Guenet is solid hitting and on serve-receive. Photo by Jonathan Natividad.

Sports editor Emanuel Lee can be reached at [email protected]

Emanuel Lee
Emanuel Lee is the sports editor of the Los Gatan, Gilroy Dispatch, Hollister Free Lance and Morgan Hill Times. An American High and University of Kentucky alumnus, he primarily covers high school athletics, Gavilan College, various youth sports in south Santa Clara/San Benito counties and pro sports on occasion. Two decades of journalism experience and recipient of several writing awards from the California News Publishers Association. With the Weeklys/NewSVMedia group since 2013. Emanuel has run eight marathons with a PR of 3:13.40 (7:24 mile pace), counts himself as a devoted follower of Jesus Christ and loves spending time with his wife and their two lovely daughters, Evangeline and Eliza. Coaches, athletic directors and parents are encouraged to report scores to [email protected]

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