Taylen Ballard didn’t always believe the hype.
Particularly not when she entered Clovis High School as a 5-foot-11 budding volleyball talent who had to be talked into bypassing the freshman team and starting her Cougars career on the junior varsity by director of sport Richard Lake and her father, Bart.
“All of my friends were on the freshman team, and I was scared to be on JV,” Ballard said. “Those girls were so good, and I was just a girl coming out of the eighth grade.”
But even her time at that lower level of Clovis’ program wouldn’t last long as the national stage beckoned.
Ballard was promoted to the varsity before the end of her freshman year. She became a major contributor to a Central Section championship team and an early college commitment as a sophomore, was listed as one of the nation’s top 50 juniors by prepvolleyball.com in her third season and concluded her Cougars’ career by becoming the first area player to be named a first-team Under Armour All-American.
Ballard – now a 6-3 senior outside hitter who delivered six kills per set for a team that went 34-11 while winning tournament titles at the Clovis Varsity Challenge, Central California Classic and Hard Driven Challenge – is The Fresno Bee’s Girls Volleyball Player of the Year.
It’s not very often you have to talk a kid into playing up. But we had to push Taylen, especially when she was young. She didn’t always buy into how good she could be.
Clovis girls volleyball coach Richard Lake, on Bee Player of the Year Taylen Ballard
“It’s not very often you have to talk a kid into playing up,” Lake said. “But we had to push Taylen, especially when she was young. She didn’t always buy into how good she could be.”
The considerable talent Lake saw in Ballard from the start began to emerge before the rest of the section during her sophomore season, when she produced 398 kills in 102 sets, hitting at a .355 clip, to help lead Clovis to a Tri-River Athletic Conference title and the school’s first Division I championship.
She also made an oral commitment to BYU – where her father and mother, Tina, met as students – during her sophomore year.
“Since I was a little kid, it’s always been my dream to go there,” Ballard said. “And when I went there for (a volleyball) camp, it was just jaw-dropping how beautiful it was, which made me want to go there even more.”
Looking to justify her scholarship offer from BYU, Ballard got off to an even better start as a junior – leading the section with 380 kills in 62 sets while hitting .375 – before an ankle injury ended her season midway through Clovis’ TRAC opener against eventual D-I champion Clovis East.
Ballard had 15 kills and the Cougars were ahead 13-8 in the third set of a match they led 2-0 at the time of the injury. Clovis lost 21-25, 24-26, 25-19, 25-12, 15-12, starting a spiral in which the Cougars dropped eight of their last 11 matches and exited in the first round of the D-I playoffs.
Clovis was 20-9 and looking like a lock for a top playoff seed before Ballard’s injury, which forced her first extended break from the sport since she took it up in the fifth grade at Redbank Elementary.
“It was really hard watching from the bench, but I learned a lot from it,” Ballard said. “I learned to be a better teammate. I missed out and realized how much volleyball meant to me and how much I loved the sport. It made me want to work harder.”
As a senior, Ballard bounced back from her injury while blossoming into the most dominant offensive force in the section, finishing with 621 kills, fourth most in the state and 49th best in the nation among statistics kept on Maxpreps. It was the second-best total by a section hitter in the past 12 years, according to that site.
“We obviously had high expectations for her this year, and I felt like she went out and had a really great year for us,” Lake said. “She led us to three tournament titles. We fell short at the end, but it wasn’t anything she didn’t provide us. She dominated on the offensive side of the game.”
But it wasn’t all about hitting for Ballard, who was ranked the nation’s No. 21 Senior Ace by prepvolleyball.com entering her senior season.
Desiring to be a six-rotation player, Ballard went from playing sparingly in the back row as a sophomore to becoming the Cougars’ digs (307) and serves received (457) leader as a senior.
621The Central Section-leading and state fourth-best kill total for Clovis senior outside hitter Taylen Ballard
“I was impressed with her emphasis on her full game,” Clovis West coach Rhonda DeRuiter said of the TRAC MVP. “Everyone knew early she would be a hitter and blocker who would stand out in our league without any issues.
“And she fulfilled those expectations and potential. But I don’t know how many people realize how far she came with her passing and defense. The difference from her sophomore to senior year was tremendous in ball control and defense.”
Ballard, a first-team all-state selection by Maxpreps and a second-team all-state pick by CalHiSports, said her overall improvement came down to some advice from her first coach at Redbank, Charlie Ford.
“His quote that I’ve always used was, ‘To be the best, you have to work harder than the rest,’ ” said Ballard, who finished with 1,405 kills in her prep career. “That helped me to realize you aren’t just going to be given things easily. You have to work hard for them. And hard work pays off.”
Girls Volleyball Outstanding Offensive Performer
School: Clovis West
She’s qualified because: In her third varsity season, Hebert was the driving force as Clovis West won its sixth Tri-River Athletic Conference title and reached the Central Section Division I final for the seventh time in the past nine seasons. The first-team all-TRAC selection moved from outside hitter as a junior to opposite (right-side) hitter as a senior and delivered 340 kills while hitting at a .300 percent clip. The Cal State San Marcos-bound Hebert also contributed 143 digs, 46 aces and 41 blocks for a Golden Eagles team that went 35-11 and reached the quarterfinals of the CIF Southern California Regional playoffs. Hebert had 14-kill performances in Clovis West’s 25-17, 31-29, 25-19 loss to Liberty-Bakersfield in the section final and a 27-25, 25-15, 20-25, 15-25, 16-14 victory over Beckman-Irvine in the SoCal Regional.
Girls Volleyball Outstanding Setter
She’s qualified because: Gonsalves propelled Immanuel’s offense during its run to the Central Section Division V title and the CIF State D-V final. The first-team All-Central Sequoia League selection contributed 1,034 assists, including 40 as the second-seeded Eagles beat top-seeded and defending champion Frazier Mountain 25-13, 28-26, 25-23 for the school’s first section title in 19 seasons. Gonsalves also had team-leading totals of 288 digs and 51 aces. The daughter of Immanuel coach Janell Gonsalves had 33 assists and 10 digs in the Eagles’ 3-0 sweep of Capistrano Valley Christian-San Juan Capistrano in the CIF Southern California Regional D-V final, and 23 assists and eight digs in Immanuel’s 3-0 loss to Head/Royce-Oakland in the state championship. Gonsalves has participated in three section finals, also playing for Immanuel’s D-V volleyball runner-up in 2015 and the Eagles’ D-IV champion in basketball in 2016.
Girls Volleyball Coach of the Year
She’s qualified because: The former Janell Gruenstein led her alma mater to the 10th Central Section championship in school history and its third appearance in the CIF State finals. After tying for second in a Central Sequoia League that featured Division II finalist Exeter and perennial section power Central Valley Christian, Gonsalves’ Eagles got on a roll in the postseason, as the second seed beat top-seeded and defending champion Frazier Mountain 25-13, 28-26, 25-23 in the D-V final. Then as the fifth seed in the CIF Southern California D-V Regionals, Immanuel beat No. 12 Poly-Sun Valley 3-0, No. 4 Tarbut V’ Torah-Irvine 3-1, No. 1 San Gabriel Academy 3-0 and No. 2 Capistrano Valley Christian-San Juan Capistrano 3-0 to reach the state final, where it lost 3-0 to Head/Royce-Oakland to cap a 27-16 season.
The Fresno Bee Girls Volleyball All-Stars
- Corinne Acosta, sophomore, outside hitter, Exeter
- Chin Agina, junior, opposite hitter, Sanger
- Sarah Armendariz, senior, setter/middle hitter, Clovis West
- Tiersa Bailey, senior, outside hitter, Clovis West
- Abbey Briggs, senior, outside hitter, Sierra
- Paige Calvin, junior, defensive specialist, Central Valley Christian
- Aubrey Cardoza, junior, outside hitter, Mission Oak
- Julie Castleman, junior, outside hitter, Minarets
- Hannah Chase, junior, outside hitter, Liberty-Madera Ranchos
- Jessica Dondlinger, senior, middle blocker, Fowler
- Isabella Galang, junior, setter, Strathmore
- Brooke Gilcrest, senior, outside hitter, Redwood
- Mallory Elick, sophomore, middle blocker, Tulare
- Dakota FauntLeRoy, senior, libero, Memorial
- Olivia Harden, senior, outside hitter, Exeter
- Amethyst Harper, sophomore, outside hitter, Hoover
- Hannah Hurtado, junior, defensive specialist, Yosemite
- Kendall Johnson, junior, outside hitter, Golden West
- Kimiah Johnson, senior, outside hitter, Bullard
- Keri Leake, senior, middle blocker, Clovis
- Makayla Lewis, sophomore, outside hitter, Central
- Katie Lowe, senior, outside hitter/defensive specialist, Minarets
- Myca Mitchell, senior, outside hitter, Buchanan
- Jocelyn Rodriguez, senior, outside hitter, Clovis East
- Maya Riddlesprigger, junior, middle blocker, Central
- Grace Schofield, junior, setter, Dos Palos
- Bryn Short, senior, middle hitter/middle blocker, Monache
- Madison Sousa, junior, outside hitter, Hanford West
- Lindsay Unruh, junior, outside hitter, Immanuel
- Katelyn Velasquez, senior, setter, Reedley