Christina Tran and Thaliana Grajeda – best friends off the volleyball court and the foundation of Clovis East High’s rise to Central Section prominence on it – never had to say much to each other.
In their sixth season as teammates, Tran, the Timberwolves’ setter, almost intrinsically had a feel for when and where to feed Grajeda, a middle hitter.
“I knew she’d be up every time I needed her,” said Tran, an all-Tri-River Athletic Conference selection. “She’s my weapon.”
And Grajeda knew when Clovis East needed a key point, Tran would find her and put up an on-the-money set without having to say a word.
“It’s all just instinctual. Sometimes when we are in trouble in a play, it’s like the trust kicks in and she sends me the ball and we get the point,” said Grajeda, the TRAC MVP. “And it’s like, ‘Wow, I’m really glad we’re best friends.’ ”
Tran and Grajeda helped transform the Timberwolves from a team with two playoff victories over the program’s first 16 years to section champions in the final year of their four seasons as varsity starters.
914 and 397The number of assists and kills, respectively, produced by Bee Girls Volleyball Co-Players of the Year Christina Tran and Thaliana Grajeda of Clovis East.
With Tran delivering 914 assists and Grajeda producing 397 kills, Clovis East went a school-record 33-9, according to historian Bob Barnett, while capturing the school’s first Tri-River Athletic Conference and section Division I titles, and making its first appearance in the CIF State playoffs.
Tran and Grajeda, The Bee’s Co-Players of the Year, had a chemistry on the court that you can’t teach and a dedication to establishing a winning culture that will benefit the Timberwolves’ program for years to come, coach Vicki Samarin said.
“They have this great communication on the court,” Samarin said. “Sometimes, and it’s nothing that we’ve trained in them, but they will have a signal and a way to let each other know, there is where it needs to be.
“They will be missed, but they did leave behind a great legacy of work ethic and commitment. And I know the girls who are coming up behind (Tran and Grajeda) know this is what we are now. This is Clovis East volleyball.”
Tran and Grajeda were thrust into the starting lineup at middle blocker as freshman because a program historically lacking in height was devoid of it among its upperclassmen in 2012.
Clovis East went a combined 25-40, including 2-18 in TRAC play, during Tran and Grajeda’s freshman and sophomore seasons.
As the youngsters on varsity, Tran and Grajeda leaned on each other during the tough times and naturally gravitated to each other, spending as much time together off the court as they did on it.
“That’s when our friendship took off and we became best friends and we hung out all the time,” said Grajeda, who has signed with San Jose State. “It created a trust between us on the court that translated to some great volleyball.”
We have the best connection ever. It’s because we’re best friends and played with each other so long. We clicked every single time.
Clovis East’s Christina Tran on her chemistry with fellow four-year varsity starter Thaliana Grajeda
“We have the best connection ever. It’s because we’re best friends and played with each other so long. We clicked every single time,” Tran said. “She completes me. The things I like, she likes. Everyone knows that’s seen us that we’re connected at the hip. To have such a strong connection really pays off on the court.”
The Timberwolves, who had only six winning seasons during the program’s first 15 years according to Barnett, began to turn the corner during their junior seasons, when Tran moved full-time to setter and Grajeda emerged as one of the section’s best offensive forces.
Clovis East went 21-14, finished 5-5 in a league that produced both D-I finalists and won a playoff match for the second time in school history.
“Our mentality changed starting our junior year,” Tran said. “And at the beginning of our senior year, we set the goal for ourselves to win Valley. We all wanted it. No person on the team was like, ‘Oh, maybe we can’t do this.’ Every single person knew we could and worked hard, and we carried ourselves to our highest potential.”
The Timberwolves opened Tran and Grajeda’s senior season with three straight wins, then ran off a 12-match winning streak at midseason that included a championship run through the Hard Driven Volleyball Challenge at Clovis North and a dramatic five-set, come-from-behind victory over defending D-I champion Clovis to open TRAC play.
Clovis East would go 9-1 in the TRAC and opened the section playoffs with five-set thrillers over Buchanan and Centennial before the second-seeded Timberwolves swept No. 1 Liberty-Bakersfield 25-18, 25-20, 25-22 in the D-I final.
The Timberwolves went on to give eventual state champion Redondo Union its toughest match of the postseason in a five-set 25-20, 25-21, 17-25, 23-25, 15-8 loss. The Sea Hawks didn’t go more than four sets during the rest of their run to the D-I title.
“It was because of the family culture we built together,” Grajeda said. “We really felt more like sisters than just teammates. It was like every day, even in the summer, we came in and we had fun. The fun turned into really intense practices. We saw that and we were like, ‘Wow, this is something we’ve never seen in any of our teams before,’ and we felt it could turn into something big.”
Girls Volleyball All-Stars: Outstanding Offensive Performer Taylen Ballard
- School: Clovis
- Grade: Junior
- She’s qualified because: The only athlete from the Central Section listed among prepvolleyball.com’s list of the nation’s Top 50 juniors, Ballard was off to a blistering start before missing the Cougars’ last 10 matches because of a fractured ankle. At the time of the injury, which came with Clovis leading 2-0 and up 13-8 in the third set of a five-set loss to eventual Division I champion Clovis East in a Tri-River Athletic Conference opener, Ballard was leading the section, according to stats kept on maxpreps.com, with 380 kills. She finished ninth. If her section-leading average of 6.1 kills per set had held up over the Cougars’ final 46 sets, she would have easily surpassed section leader and Colorado State-bound Breana Runnels of Independence, who finished with 535. “It’s no secret who’s getting the ball when you play against her,” Clovis coach Rich Lake said. “The opponent knows that and we know that. But she still wants the ball and comes through for us.” Ballard connected on a .375 hitting percentage while also contributing 134 digs, 56 assists, 21 blocks and 14 aces for a Clovis team that went 22-17 overall and 19-10 with Ballard in the lineup. She was the MVP of the Clovis Varsity Challenge after leading the Cougars to the title.
- A unique talent: Ballard stands 6-foot-3, but when she jumps and reached full extension, she hits at 10-5, which Lake said is incredible height for a female athlete. It also allows her to defeat blockers focused on stopping her, even through double-teams. “She can go over the blockers and bring it with some heat,” Lake said. “There’s really not any other hitters in our area that can do that.” Ballard was an all-TRAC selection as a sophomore, when she helped lead Clovis to the TRAC and section Division I titles with 398 kills, 82 digs and 38 blocks. It was also as a sophomore that Ballard verbally committed to Brigham Young. Lake said Ballard could have had her choice of the nation’s top programs, but wanted to play at BYU, a perennial top 15 program in the nation. Lake said Ballard is expected to start for the Cougars as a freshman.
- He said it: “I’ve been coaching at Clovis High for 21 years and never had a player come through like her. There’s been a lot of girls go on and play in college, but Taylen is definitely at the next level. And she still has a passion to get better. She comes to the gym everyday wanting to learn. That’s what makes her special.” – Clovis coach Rich Lake
Girls Volleyball All-Stars: Coach of the Year Vicki Samarin
- School: Clovis East
- She’s qualified because: In her 10th season, Samarin guided the Timberwolves to their first Central Section volleyball championship and first berth in the CIF State playoffs. Led by four-year starters in Thaliana Grajeda and Christina Tran, and third-year varsity players in Abby Edwards, Brittany Olivares and Madison Mossette, second-seeded Clovis East punctuated the best season in school history with a 25-18, 25-20-25-22 sweep of No. 1 Liberty-Bakersfield in the Division I final. “What makes me happy is for the school and school community,” Samarin said. “It needs these successes, and for our girls to be a part of that. It’s a huge sense of pride.” Clovis East also gave eventual state champion its toughest test of the postseason, pushing the Redondo Union Sea Hawks to five sets in a 25-20, 25-21, 17-25, 23-25, 15-8 loss in the first round of the Southern California Regionals. Redondo Union didn’t go more than four sets during the rest of its state-title run.
- Slow build: Clovis East finished above .500 three times and advanced out of the first round of the section playoffs once during Samarin’s first eight seasons, according to historian Bob Barnett. But with Grajeda and Tran developing into two of the section’s premier players as juniors, the Timberwolves went 21-14 in 2014, including a 5-5 mark in the Tri-River Athletic Conference (which produced both of the D-I finalists that season) and only the school’s second playoff win. That set the stage for 2015, when Clovis East went 33-9 while winning the Hard Driven Volleyball Challenge tournament title and the TRAC crown for the first time in school history before launching a playoff run that also included five-set victories over Buchanan and Centennial. “This is what I was hired to do. Getting it done is what’s supposed to happen. It’s the expectation I placed on myself when I took the job,” Samarin said. “I’m very grateful for all the support at Clovis East, from the administration to the students who supported us through the rough times. I never felt pressure. I knew we were always working to do the right thing, and eventually it would pay off.”
- She said it: “I think she is so sincere with her intentions toward us. She has given us so much of her time, I felt like there was no way we could fail. Because of her dedication to the team, we all created this culture that was unstoppable. Samarin’s support system really helped us out this year.” – Clovis East senior middle blocker Thaliana Grajeda
The Bee’s Girls Volleyball All-Stars
- Amanda Acosta, senior, outside hitter, Exeter
- Dominique Andrews, senior, middle blocker, Madera South
- Rachel Arkelian, senior, libero, Buchanan
- Samantha Arellano, sophomore middle hitter, Mission Oak
- Savannah Bohna, sophomore, outside hitter, Yosemite
- Carlee Boomer, senior, outside hitter, Minarets
- Jayme Budwig, senior, outside hitter, Fowler
- Grace Campbell, senior, setter/opposite hitter, Memorial
- Aubrey Cardoza, junior, outside hitter, Mission Oak
- Rebecca Davis, senior, outside hitter, Kingsburg
- Jordan Falk, senior, outside hitter, Sierra
- Hannah Fluegel, senior, setter, Central Valley Christian
- Maddie Frediani, senior, setter, Clovis West
- Brooke Gilcrest, junior, middle blocker, Redwood
- Olivia Harden, junior, outside hitter, Exeter
- Amethyst Harper, freshman, outside hitter, Hoover
- Micah Hebert, junior, outside hitter, Clovis West
- Hailey Hilvers, senior, middle blocker, Central Valley Christian
- Sierra LeBeau, senior, outside hitter, Sanger
- Makayla Lewis, freshman, outside hitter, Central
- Issabella Luna, senior, outside hitter, Mt. Whitney
- Sarah Milliser, senior, outside hitter, Reedley
- Hannah Pedersen, senior, setter, Tulare
- Alyson Penrose, senior, libero, Clovis North
- Makenna Pierce, senior, outside hitter, Dos Palos
- Annie Regier, senior, outside hitter, Immanuel
- Maya Riddlesprigger, sophomore, middle hitter, Central
- Kinlee Rix, senior, setter, Sierra
- Jocelyn Rodriguez, junior, outside hitter, Clovis East
- Katie Roncelli, senior, middle blocker, El Diamante
- Tobi Sanders, senior, opposite hitter, Bullard
- Tayler Sefton, junior, defensive specialist, Liberty-Madera Ranchos
- Taylor Stainbrook, senior, outside hitter, Golden West
- Brooke Watts, senior, outside hitter, Buchanan
- Shelby Welton, senior, defensive specialist, Clovis