Players on this season’s Arroyo Grande High girls volleyball team knew they had a tough act to follow.
The Eagles graduated five senior starters from 2008 when they went 28-3-1 and advanced to the quarterfinals of the CIF-Southern Section Division I-A playoffs.
Rachel Ventura, a 6-foot middle hitter, was one of just three Arroyo Grande seniors who returned, although her playing experience as a junior was fairly scarce.
“It was a lot more responsibility than last year,” Ventura said. “It was a whole new thing for me.”
It was a new role for Ventura but similar success for Arroyo Grande.
Ventura, The Tribune’s San Luis Obispo County Girls Volleyball Player of the Year, led the Eagles in kills and blocks this season as they enjoyed a similar follow-up, going 23-3-1 during a second-round playoff campaign.
Along the way, Arroyo Grande preserved its unbeaten streak in PAC 7 league play, in which the Eagles haven’t lost a match since 2005.
“We really came out and did what we wanted to do — to go undefeated another year,” Ventura said of the PAC 7 dominance. “Coming into it, we really didn’t know what to expect. We’d lost five of our core players from last year, so it was really different.”
Even Arroyo Grande coach Ernie Santa Cruz said he was surprised the Eagles were so convincingly able to keep the PAC 7 streak alive, as they lost just two games in league play all year, concluding the regular season ranked No. 8 in the division.
“They worked hard and they started believing in what we were trying to do,” Santa Cruz said. “I was really surprised that when we went through league, it wasn’t easy, but they made it look easy.”
Ventura, already named the PAC 7 MVP by the league’s coaches, led the league in blocks with 63, while placing second in kills, with 213. Her blocks total was fifth in the division.
A motivating memory
Ventura’s focus on volleyball changed, she said, after the Eagles’ five-game win over El Toro in the second round of the 2008 postseason, when they rallied from eight down in a match-changing 28-26 fourth-game victory.
“That’s one thing I always think of when I think of volleyball,” Ventura said. “It was just a really powerful moment. It was a liberating feeling. From that point on, I knew I really wanted to work hard this year.”
“She didn’t have a lot of playing experience,” Santa Cruz added. “Once she figured out, ‘I can do this,’ her success grew and so did the success of the team. Somewhere along the line, it just clicked.”
Ventura, who consistently used a hard top-spin serve that put opponents off balance, emerged as one of the league’s most versatile talents, also finishing second in the PAC 7 with 50 aces — a number that trailed only the 51 of her sister and teammate, junior libero Madison Ventura.
“What’s different with her from a lot of other players in this league is that she was very effective hitting, blocking and serving,” Santa Cruz said. “When she would go from the front row to the back to serve, she could turn a game around.”
A ‘family affair’ at home and with the team
Madison, also a first-team all-PAC 7 choice, led the league with six digs per game, but she’s far from the only other example of the Venturas’ family-wide athleticism.
Their father, Robin, was a two-time Major League Baseball All-Star and won six Gold Gloves. Jillian, Rachel’s cousin, starred for the school’s girls basketball team a year ago, and Grace, a freshman, also plays volleyball and basketball. As if that weren’t enough, cousin K.J. Cusack, a St. Joseph running back, recently committed to Cal Poly after a lengthy process involving several other Football Bowl Subdivision and Football Championships Subdivision football programs.
“It’s a family affair,” Ventura said. “We love spending time together, and it’s another way we can all bond together and something we can all relate to.”
Meanwhile, fellow Eagles Chelsey McKelvy and Maggi Jo Keffury were also first-team all-league picks this year, while Nicole Leger earned second-team honors. When they’d gather in celebration after key points at James Gym this season, Rachel Ventura often was an emotional leader.
“She brought really good energy to the court,” Santa Cruz said. “When she did something right, the whole team felt it. The team would feed off her. They all relied on each other. That was our strength — we played together.”
Keeping her college options open
Ventura is applying to a number of universities, including NYU, Oklahoma State and USC, and she’s looking into playing collegiately, she said.
If she were to choose NYU, she’d be close to former Arroyo Grande teammate Olivia Trudeau, who started this year as a true freshman setter for Seton Hall.
Perhaps what’s most noteworthy about Ventura’s success as a senior, Santa Cruz pointed out, is that it came in spite of her simultaneously focusing on other sports, too. (She entered the week averaging 8.5 points and a team-best five rebounds in basketball.)
“If she just kind of isolated her interests and focused on it, who knows?” Santa Cruz said of how good she could become as a college player. “She has size and long arms, and she’s very competitive.
“It was really exciting to see Rachel develop,” Santa Cruz added. “She’s just kind of scratching the surface of how good she can be. She came in (this season) with question marks around her: ‘Is she going to be able to do this? She’s never played middle before.’ To see her accomplish what she has, it’s a testament to her ability. If she thinks she can do it, she can do it.”