LAGUNA BEACH — It so happened that two kids, a girl and a boy, grew up across the street from each other in a small, Orange County beach city. They both grew to love volleyball, as kids in beach towns have been known to do, and went on to star in the sport at the local high school.
They shared strikingly similar styles on the court, with all-around abilities to dig, pass, set and hit, and they went about it with all the intensity of someone waiting in a bank to make a deposit.
Sara Nelson and Sean Stafford never actually played volleyball together. Chances are they might have bumped a ball once or twice, since their mothers, Joan Nelson and Karen Stafford, were best friends and spent time at each other's homes.
As it happened, Stafford was Orange County's top player last season as he led Laguna Beach High into the semifinals of the Southern Section championships. He now attends UC Santa Barbara, where he will play in the spring.
Nelson is in the midst of her senior season at Laguna Beach, one in which she is making her claim as the best all-around player in the county.
She was named most valuable player of the Orange County Championships after leading her team to the title of that tournament, one of the most prestigious in Southern California.
Lance Stewart, who coached the Laguna Beach boys' team with Stafford last season before taking over the girls' team this season, says, "the whole team revolves around Sara."
And the team has spun itself right into a 10-0 record.
All this might be surprising to some, seeing as Nelson wasn't even named to the All-Pacific Coast League first team last season. It seems one of the few things Nelson doesn't share with Stafford when it comes to volleyball is recognition. Stafford was well-known, well-touted and well-coveted by colleges.
Part of Nelson's lack of recognition might be because she played with a torn rotator cuff last season. Part of it might be because, Nelson says, she has sometimes been tentative during games, afraid she might let her team down. And part of it might be because Nelson has been just plain overlooked.
Oh, one other reason. Nelson is 5-feet-8.
"I don't think I'll get into one of the big volleyball schools," she said. "They want girls 6-feet tall, they want the big people. It's like they don't care what you can do if you don't measure up."
What Nelson, an outside hitter, can do is just about everything. In an impressive show of anticipation and reaction last season, she dug hit after hit from Irvine's big two, Bev Oden and Melinda Norton. Laguna Beach lost that match, Irvine went on to win its second consecutive state championship, but Nelson's performance left a lasting impression.
"What you see is a true athlete who's quick, fluid and able to always be in control of her body," Stewart said. "That's what really connects Sara and Sean, the fact that they're able to control their bodies, so after they pass they can get right into their hitting motion. And they both hit the ball very hard."
And Nelson's hits seem to have a vicious streak to them because they originate from someone who doesn't look like a big hitter. Stewart, who took over for Lisa Mariotti this season, instituted weightlifting for his players, something Nelson says has made her stronger and more durable.
But she had always been able to hit hard.
"When I started playing in the sixth grade, my hits would just fly straight back and hit the wall," Nelson said. "The ball never got close to the ground, it just took off for the back wall."
Nelson has always been a good athlete. Her father, Byron, played football at UCLA. Her mother taught physical education.
"You noticed it right from the start with her," Joan Nelson said. "Her hand-eye coordination was amazing, even as a baby. Just the way she moved, the way she could catch a ball, you could just tell she was going to be an athlete."
Laguna Beach thought enough of her to place her on the varsity as a freshman. Nelson admits she was intimidated to be playing with older players and withdrew a bit, afraid to make a mistake. Things were more or less similar for her as a sophomore and as a junior.
"She was really worried about making mistakes, about letting people down," Joan said. "If anything has changed about her this year it's been her confidence. She's not concerned what anybody thinks, she just concentrates on the game."
And so far, all the matches have been Laguna Beach victories. Nelson acknowledges a difference in her outlook when she's on the court, one she credits Stewart with instilling in her.
"If a coach believes in you, then you are going to believe in yourself," Nelson said. "He tells us just to go for it, it's not like you make one bad play and you're out. I know if I hit in the net a couple of times, I'm going to stay out there."
Which is where Stewart wants her.
"It's always nice to have someone you can set the ball to and count on the kill," Stewart said. "It's always nice to have someone who, if they have the ball served to them, they're going to make a good pass. It keeps you from getting in big ruts. Having Sara on your team is like having a stopper in baseball."
Or Sean Stafford.