On Nov. 19, Vista Murrieta freshman Claire Little delivered a career-high 22 kills in the California Interscholastic Federation Southern California Regional Division I final versus La Costa Canyon, a five-set win. Three days later, the 6-2 outside hitter obliterated her career best with 30 kills – a record for a freshman in a California state final – as the Broncos captured their first California state title in their first championship appearance, a four-set win over Campolindo.
When you do something in California that no freshman has ever done before, and it results in a state title, you make a statement befitting PrepVolleyball.com’s 2019 National Freshman of the Year!
Vista Murrieta went 26-7 in the season before Little arrived, but when the season ended in the first round of the Southern Section Division 1 playoffs, the team was facing a total rebuild. Ed Taitano, the team’s third-year head coach, was graduating 10, among them his top four hitters, top blocker, top three diggers and one half of his terrific setting tandem. Finishing even .500 in 2019 seemed like a stretch.
Enter Little and, with her, a glimmer of hope. The six-rotation outside came to her first practice carrying a big reputation — having given a commitment to Division I power BYU before she even played a high school match — and bigger expectations. Little got to work to prove her bona fides.
Experiencing the expected growing pains, the Broncos started the season by dropping their first three matches and came to the prestigious Durango Fall Classic in Las Vegas just 4-4 overall. Seeded 50th in the field of 64, Vista Murrieta swept through its pool, defeating two nationally-ranked teams in straight sets in the process.
The next morning, the Broncos faced an even more daunting opponent: No. 2 overall seed Torrey Pines. Vista Murrieta dropped the first set to the team that would go on to win both the California Open Division State Championship and the mythical national championship, but rallied to win the next two, handing the Falcons one of just two losses on the season. Little played a huge role in the upset, notching 11 kills, 11 digs and two blocks.
“Her energy/intensity is super positive and she works hard all the time on and off the court,” said Taitano.
Though Vista Murrieta would go on to lose to national powers Louisville Mercy, Louisville Assumption and Mater Dei to close out the tournament, the team’s performance in Vegas shifted their expectations into high gear. Led by its high-powered hitting tandem of Little and senior Reka Monteleone, middle Juliette Russell, setter Molly Wilson and libero Chloe Scheer, the Broncos lost just four more times the rest of the year, all to nationally-ranked teams.
Little was a huge catalyst in the team’s surge.
“She took over matches and was a primary reason they won,” noted Forza1 director Dana Burkholder.
Vista Murrieta rode its strong play to a berth in the Southern Section Division 1 playoffs. Unlike 2018, the Broncos won a match, sweeping Corona del Mar, before losing on the road to national No. 9 Marymount.
The Broncos would not lose again.
Seeded fifth in a Southern California Division I regional field of 16, Vista Murrieta knocked off La Jolla Country Day then defeated nationally ranked Mira Costa, Sierra Canyon and La Costa Canyon to reach the state championship match. Little had 16 or more kills in each of the wins, setting the stage for her 30-kill, 10-dig masterpiece, where she hit above .400, versus Campo for the title.
“The only thing ‘little’ about her is her name,” Taitano quipped. “She was a dynamic contributor to our program and one of the main pieces of our team that helped contribute to our overall success this season.”
Little, who was named First Team All-League and First Team All-Area, led the 25-11 Broncos in kills with 461. She was second in digs with 247 and third both in aces (35) and serve-receiving passing. In other words, her fingerprints were all over the team’s 2019 state title.
“She has to be one of the top 3 if not the No. 1 player in her class,” noted Burkholder. “She is doing things that players like [BYU All-America] McKenna Miller never did at her age. She has a steady game much like [Stanford All-America Kathryn] Plummer.”
In winning the award for National Freshman of the Year, Little edged other talented freshmen like Mele Corral-Blagojevich of California’s Redondo Union, Brooklyn Deleye of Kansas’ Washburn Rural and Lakin Laurendine of Mississippi’s Clinton HS. All had outstanding seasons worthy of recognition, but Little’s record-setting performance in the most important match in school history clinched it for her.
The Vista Murrieta program always had talent and never came close to winning a title. One year after graduation gutted the roster, the Broncos went all the way, led by a freshman.
Congratulations to Claire Little, PrepVolleyball.com’s 2019 National Freshman of the Year!