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High School Volleyball Isn’t Quite Back To Normal, But Standout Grayce Olson And Her Foothill High Teammates Are Enjoying The Challenge, Embracing The Moment •... Foothill Volleyball | COVER STORY: Footloose Falcons

High School Volleyball Isn’t Quite Back To Normal, But Standout Grayce Olson And Her Foothill High Teammates Are Enjoying The Challenge, Embracing The Moment •

PICTURED ABOVE: Foothill senior captain, Grayce Olson

Making the quick adjustment back to a fall season in one of the region’s most competitive leagues, the Foothill volleyball team has been thriving in the face of challenges.

While playing with masks presents challenges in a sport where instant communication is so crucial, the Falcons of Pleasanton have adapted to that, as well as to traveling once again.  

After a brief spring season, they are back to playing outside of their county and once again seeing potential postseason opponents in tournaments. 

It’s been a warp-speed trip into the future.

“It’s crazy; last time we were in a full season was my sophomore year, and now it’s two years later,” Falcons 6-foot-4 senior outside hitter Grayce Olson said. “There are all these sophomores and freshmen on all these teams that we are playing who are new.” 

Like all teams back with full fall schedules, they have adjusted to protocols.

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“We kind of learned how to get around with having masks and not being able to read (facial expressions),” senior middle blocker Sruti Jonnalagadda said. “We’ve really worked on communicating a lot more and being louder.”

So far the Falcons are making lots of noise. Back in their fall domain, they have won their first 18 of their first 19 matches, including seven in the all-powerful East Bay Athletic League. They’ve been ranked as high as 10th in the SportStars NorCal rankings, and were 16th in the most recent rankings released on Sept. 15.

Foothill Volleyball, Katie Salonga
Katie Salonga, second from left, and her teammates are all smiles after an early September win over Castro Valley. (Jean-Paul Toshiro photos)

Dusty Collins has seen a lot of tweaks and changes to the game of volleyball since he began coaching at the school in 1997, serving as both boys and girls coach. He noticed that boys are quieter by nature at high school age and that girls have adjusted quicker to protocols and rules set forth during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Girls are better communicators,” Collins said. “But it has an impact on the game when you put a mask over somebody who is quiet. It makes them even more quiet, You have to get them out of that shell so they can be more comfortable.”

With co-captains Olson and Jonnalagadda providing skillful senior on-court leadership, the communication is just fine. 

Still Collins points to nuances like non-verbal facial expressions that cannot be seen with face coverings.

“Little things like not getting that read from setter to hitter using that cue; no quick facial expressions,” he explained. “But they have adapted well to the circumstances.”

The fall season is giving them a chance to show that. Their brief spring season became even shorter after having a player test positive for COVID-19 following their first match, and were only able to reschedule one of three matches missed during the resulting 10-day quarantine, Collins said.

After being limited to facing teams within Alameda County in the spring, now the Falcons can play familiar EBAL foes from Contra Costa County, north of the I-680/580 corridor, like San Ramon Valley and Monte Vista in Danville and Carondelet in Concord.

Foothill Volleyball, Sruti Jonnalagadda
Senior co-captain Sruti Jonnalagadda will play for New York University next fall.

They went into high gear right after Labor Day, playing four times in five days. After that there is a crucial stretch of EBAL matchups: at Dublin Sept. 16, and back home against Amador Valley on Sept. 21. It’s no secret these matches will be challenging.

The Falcons swept Monte Vista (the most recent EBAL champion in fall 2019) on Sept. 2, though the 25-13, 25-21, 26-24 games were hotly contested.

“Monte Vista is a very good team, and those were all tight sets,” Collins said. “It was one of those matches that can go either way.”

Collins is well-accustomed to the tight competition in the EBAL. An EBAL school won every NCS Division I championship from 2006-2017, with Foothill winning titles in 2006 and 2010. 

Leading the way is Olson, who committed to UCLA in September 2020.

“Just to have a player of her caliber is great,” Collins said. “They all look for her as that team leader. She is not a real vocal person but she is one who is doing it by her play.”

So many times, Olson has turned a perilous situation into a positive outcome.

“She bails us out of many bad situations, and we’re able to win points because she is so talented; we’re very lucky to have a player of her caliber,” Collins said.

Olson aspires to a career in sports marketing and to be a coach, which is in her DNA. Her father, Greg, is the offensive coordinator of the Las Vegas Raiders. Her mother, Lissa, has coached track and field at colleges like Purdue, Washington State, Washington, South Florida and now coaches the jumps at Foothill. 

Grayce Olson, Dusty Collins
Grayce Olson and coach Dusty Collins share a chat prior to the team’s game with Castro Valley on Sept. 8.

Growing up in a coaching environment, Grayce said she is “in my element” as a leader. It’s a gift her teammates recognize and appreciate.

“I will say Grayce is basically the role model of the team,” Jonnalagadda said. “She’s like the mom. She knows what to do and when to do it.”

Upon hearing that compliment, Grayce told her teammate, with a smile: “Thanks, girl!”

Though Foothill year-in and year-out has been a top NCS contender, the Falcons haven’t had many players move on to the Pac-12, though they have seen many alumni play collegiately. Collins can just point to one Falcon volleyball alum who ended up in the Pac-12 — 2008 graduate Betsy Sedlak, who played one year at Oregon before transferring to UC Davis. 

“This is pretty neat for Grayce,” Collins said in amazement.

Jonnalagadda is planning to play at New York University, noting she is leaning toward studying chemistry.

Chemistry is working quite well for Foothill as newer stars emerge. Sophomore starters Paige Bennett, a 6-foot outside hitter, and setter Katie Salonga, have elevated their play thanks to older players like Olson and Jonnalagadda showing them the way, Collins said. Opposite Jo Modica is a senior who has really stepped it up, he added. So has outside hitter Kaycie Burdick, the team’s only freshman.

“Kaycie, our one freshman, is amazing and is a great player to play with,” Olson said with excitement. “Our two starting sophomores are also really really good at volleyball and are very good teammates as well.”  

Foothill Volleyball, Jo Modica
Senior opposite hitter Jo Modica prepares to deliver a serve against Castro Valley.

Along with returning to a full slate in the EBAL, the Falcons are enjoying getting back on the road to tournament action. They went to the Irvington Tournament for the first time in several years and will also travel up to Sonoma Valley. The road trips are a little different right now, with no overnight field trips allowed, nor other familiar experiences of team-bonding.

“We are not having the potluck or campsite things,” Collins said. “Now it’s bring your own food, or get your sandwich orders in.”

Earlier this season they returned to the James Logan gym, the site of that NCS championship loss nearly two years ago, and swept the Colts.

“It was really good to beat them and kind of get our revenge for the past couple years that we haven’t been able to,” Olson said.

Even in unusual circumstances and with COVID-19 era protocols in place, younger players have shown maturity and responsibility.

“Everybody knows what the right thing to do is,” Jonnalagadda said. “ It’s actually not that bad. We don’t have to babysit. It’s really fun.”

Just getting to play has been a thrill, with any potential postseason action still away in the distance.

“We’re grateful for whatever we get,” Collins said. “With the girls playing the whole season, we’re excited about it.”

Mike Wood

Mike Wood covered prep sports for more than 20 years as a member of the Contra Costa Times and Bay Area News Group. He is now an assistant editor for SportStars.

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