Like a cat pawing at a mouse, the Big Valley Christian volleyball team has toyed with the Harvest Christian League this season.
How dominant have the Lions been in league play? They are unbeaten in 12 matches, have won via sweep on 10 occasions and lost a grand total of two games along the way.
Big Valley (20-13) claimed the HCL title outright thanks to Monday's 3-1 victory over Wilton Christian. The teams were HCL co-champions in 2008.
Junior outside hitter Leah Layman, a bit player for the Lions as a sophomore, has thrived in a starring role this season, and her emergence as a big-time contributor is a significant reason that Big Valley hasn't missed a beat despite losing seven players from last year's squad.
Layman leads Big Valley in aces, is second on the team in kills and third in digs. She recorded a triple-double in last week's 3-0 win over Lodi Academy with 15 digs, 11 aces and 10 kills.
"We just have a great team this year, and Leah is definitely a big reason we are doing so well," said Big Valley coach Larry Hagstrom.
Few players ever experience the type of growth from one year to the next that Layman has experienced this year compared to last. As a sophomore, Layman produced 27 kills, 13 aces and 50 digs; already this season, she's recorded 143 kills, 77 aces and 277 digs.
"She has been a great plus for our team this season," said Hagstrom. "We lost seven players from last year's team — our two starting outside hitters, setter, middle blocker and right-side hitter. I had to move my other middle (Christina Azevedo) to play outside hitter this year, and I really needed Leah to step up to be the other outside hitter because there was no one else to do it.
"Not only has Leah stepped up, but the rest of the team has really answered the challenge of replacing all of those starters from last season's team."
Azevedo's transition from middle blocker to outside hitter has been smooth. The senior has also seen a substantial increase in her overall production, going from 103 kills a season ago to 200, from 53 digs to 312 and from 31 aces to 76.
Senior libero Becca Hanks (the team leader in aces) has anchored the Lions' defense while junior Charlotte McCarra has been a force in the middle and sophomore Brittany Miller has set the table for her teammates like a seasoned veteran.
"She plays with such great composure and she doesn't play anything like a second-year player," Hagstrom said of Miller. "It's going to be nice to watch her growth for the next two years."
It's also going to be nice for Hagstrom to see just how far this team can go in the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs.
"It has been a real joy to coach this team," said Hagstrom. "One of the most memorable teams that I have ever had."
Bee staff writer Stuart Rosenberg can be reached at 578-2301 or by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.