Every week was hell week. They trudged into the gym at 5:45 a.m., walking out with shirts drenched, limbs rubbery, tanks on empty.
Maybe Torrey Stafford knew what she was walking into at Los Angeles Marymount High last year after a transfer from Torrance Bishop Montgomery. She knew the Sailors had ridiculous talent. She knew they had expectations to win every match. But she didn’t expect this grind.
“Is it going to be like this all season?” she’d ask her senior teammates after another grueling practice.
“Yeah,” they’d affirm, making fun of her for the question, because it was all season.
A year and a once-in-a-lifetime volleyball team later, Stafford sits on the sideline of a summer workout. The group running drills behind her is no longer an undefeated juggernaut but a fresh-faced team with no wins and no losses. Gone is Elia Rubin’s fire, Kerry Keefe’s power, Kelly Belardi’s steady hand.
Stafford is what remains. And suddenly, it’s her job to answer that question she once asked.
“We’re doing this again this season,” now-senior Stafford said, unwavering. “We’re doing this again … I’m confident that we can repeat what we did last year.”
Get our high school sports newsletter
Prep Rally is devoted to the SoCal high school sports experience, bringing you scores, stories and a behind-the-scenes look at what makes prep sports so popular.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.
This was 35-0 with just a handful of sets lost, the best team in the nation, a state champion who somehow felt even better. This was a collection of talent hardly paralleled in California girls’ volleyball history. This is something virtually impossible to repeat, a group of graduated seniors virtually impossible to replace, something coach Cari Klein and assistant Tuan Le and most everyone trying to fill unfillable shoes know.
Yet to Stafford, that just means she knows what it takes.
“People think Marymount’s going to be down this year,” said Santa Ana Mater Dei coach Dan O’Dell. “But I don’t see them being down when they have Torrey Stafford.”
The praise pours in from everywhere. Klein said Stafford’s the most complete player in the state. Mira Costa coach Cam Green called her one of the best in the country.
“Her game is growing exponentially,” said Harvard-Westlake coach Natalie Morgan.
When asked if she felt she was at the top of the Southern Section talent pool, Stafford paused for a couple seconds.
“…Yeah,” she answered, a meek smile spreading on her face.
It’s not braggadocious. Stafford’s power is devastating, her serving strong. Her attacks are tactical, her block stands tall. Her passing has gone from good to great.
This is, by the way, all describing a player who was second in kills as a junior on one of the greatest girls’ volleyball teams of all time.
“I got a text from a coach that was like, ‘Holy cow — I haven’t seen this kind of improvement in a year from anybody,’” Klein said.
She’s hardly stepped off the court since the state championship win. Next came club season with Sunshine Volleyball, then workouts with Marymount, then Junior Olympics, then a one-month stay in Tulsa with USA volleyball.
Amid all the Target runs in Oklahoma and hotel-room hangouts, Stafford took home another trophy — a gold medal.
“That type of play matures people,” Le said.
Yet for all Stafford’s accolades, all her talent, all her fire and experience — will it be enough?
Marymount has a few strong returners in support: Dior Charles patrolling the middle, Lauren Brooker finding her own Belardi-adjacent rhythm at setter, breakout candidate Alexa Trapani at libero. When Southern Section push comes to shove, the fate of the Sailors rests squarely on Stafford’s shoulders.
“Last year, she had good games … this year, she’ll need to have great games,” Klein said.
Stafford is the leader. Everyone, from Klein to Le to Trapani, acknowledged it. She’ll be the one setting the tempo, the one telling her teammates it’s like this all year. It’ll be a test to her focus, Klein said — but Stafford doesn’t feel any pressure in that. She just wants to make sure every Sailor has the same mentality on the path to finding a new team identity.
Might she be OK with actually losing a game this year?
“I guess,” Stafford said. “But I’m hoping that doesn’t happen.”
Rounding out the rest of The Times’ top 10 girls’ volleyball programs:
2: Mater Dei
The Monarchs almost have to be ranked in the top five every year by default. A strong junior class, headlined by outside hitters Babi Gubbins and Isabel Clark, makes this Monarchs team particularly potent. Keep an eye on a breakout from junior opposite hitter Cymarah Gordon, who held her own in the Open Division finals against Marymount last season.
3: Manhattan Beach Mira Costa
The only other player Southern Section coaches mentioned as much as Stafford was Mustangs junior setter Charlie Fuerbringer. Committed to Wisconsin as a sophomore, she’s the figurehead of a dynamic offense that relies on Northwestern commit Drew Wright as a finisher. If Mira Costa is clicking on all cylinders, they could dismantle anyone.
4: Redondo Union
After a down year, the Sea Hawks looked primed to fight for a title. They return five starters and add some intriguing talent in 6-4 softball and basketball star Ella Zimmerman. Plus, senior Mele Corral-Blagojevich, the heart of the group, might have the hardest hit of anyone in the Southern Section.
5: Huntington Beach
Looking for a sleeper? The Oilers went 28-7 last year with a group of mostly freshmen and sophomores, and all signs are pointing up with an impressive win at an Oxnard summer tournament. Most on the team have played beach over spring and summer, which has helped their movement and ball control, said coach Craig Pazanti.
6: Vista Murrieta
Coach Ed Taitano’s team isn’t on some schools’ radar because of its location, but the Broncos were a top-ranked team in the section last year. Senior Claire Little can match up with anyone — she’s been committed to BYU since eighth grade, and O’Dell predicted she’d be the best player in the Southern Section come fall.
7: Chatsworth Sierra Canyon
Senior outside hitter Olivia Babcock is a top talent and Cornell commit Jada Cione, transferring back to Sierra Canyon after a year in Texas, adds a new dimension — but depth may be an issue.
8: Studio City Harvard-Westlake
The Wolverines sport a dynamic duo of Ava-Marie Lange and Grace Thrower, and can compete with the best from the outside, but scoring points from the middle will be “difficult,” Morgan said since they’re down three key seniors from last year.
Coaches consistently take notice of the Lancers, who beat Huntington Beach last season and took two sets from Mater Dei.
10: Palos Verdes
Kaci Demaria averaged three kills a set last year as a freshman, and is poised to lead the Sea Kings for years to come. Junior Kendall Beshear looks to be in line for a breakout, stepping into the graduated Suzy Jellison’s spot on the outside.