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Small Soldiers

Cerritos Valley Christian Has Only 705 Students, but Its Girls' Volleyball Team Is Ranked No. 1 in the Nation


The Cerritos Valley Christian girls' volleyball team is a two-time defending Southern Section champion and 1997 state titlist, credentials that normally make opponents take notice.

But when the Crusaders traveled to Orange County in September to take part in a prestigious invitational tournament, they apparently were a mystery team.

"I don't think anyone knew too much about us," said Jennifer Fopma, a 6-foot-2 senior middle blocker.

Valley Christian, which competes in Division IV, won the tournament by defeating Division I-AA power Newport Harbor in the final. The victory not only put the Crusaders among the elite teams in the Southland, it also gave them a national profile.

Last week, Valley Christian (25-0) was elevated to No. 1 in the nation by a Web site recognized as the national clearinghouse for junior volleyball information . And while the accuracy of such a poll is open to debate, the Crusaders' ability is not.

"Divisions don't really matter," Newport Harbor Coach Dan Glenn told The Times after his team lost to Valley Christian. "You get six good girls at a small school and you've got a good team."

Valley Christian, which has an enrollment of 705, is led by Fopma and 6-3 middle blocker Stacy Rouwenhorst, both of whom will attend Pepperdine next season on volleyball scholarships.

Outside hitters Heather Storey and Susie and Sarah Boogaard--who are sisters--and setter Emma Howell also are regarded as college prospects.

The Crusaders open play in the Southern Section Division IV playoffs tonight against Bishop Conaty-Loretto of Los Angeles.

"It's great to be thought of as a top team, but we aren't taking anyone for granted," Fopma said. "We're going to play every match like it's our last."

Valley Christian's rise to the top began three years ago when Gladys Rouwenhorst, Stacey's mother, took over as coach at her alma mater.

Gladys Rouwenhorst, a 1972 Valley Christian graduate, encouraged her players to participate in club volleyball programs to improve their skills.

"We wanted our team to be respected, to do something that would put us on the map," she said.

In 1996, Valley Christian won the Southern Section Division IV-A title and advanced to the second round of the state playoffs.

Last season, the Crusaders defended their Southern Section title and won the Division IV state championship by defeating Linden in the final.

But the turning point for the program came at the Dave Mohs Memorial Valley Championships in Orange County last September.

"We had never played in a tournament like that," Gladys Rouwenhorst said. "It wasn't that we hadn't tried to get in, we just weren't invited too much because we weren't on the map.

"I knew that this tournament was an elite one, and I warned the girls that we were going to play top schools to see what our weaknesses were.

"As we continued winning through pool play, I was watching the other teams that we were going to play next and in my mind I was thinking, 'OK, that's the team that's going to knock us off.' "

Valley Christian beat San Clemente, Laguna Beach and Huntington Beach Edison in pool play then defeated Anaheim Esperanza, Torrance Bishop Montgomery and Santa Ana Mater Dei en route to the final.

"As we started playing those schools, the names didn't scare us anymore," Stacy Rouwenhorst said.

Valley Christian displayed jitters, however, in the championship match against perennial power Newport Harbor.

The Crusaders immediately fell behind, 6-0, in the first game.

"Everyone was afraid to make a mistake," Gladys Rouwenhorst said. "I told the girls, 'This is how you don't want to look. Don't make this a 15-0 game.' "

Valley Christian lost the first game, 15-12, but came from behind to win the second game, 15-12. The Crusaders took a 9-4 lead in the decisive third game and held on for the victory.

"I don't think they expected that much from us," Fopma said. "And when we showed them what we could do, they kind of fell apart."

Buoyed by its success at the tournament, Valley Christian cruised through Olympic League matches, giving up more than 10 points in only one game.

The competition figures to be better in the Southern Section playoffs, but Valley Christian is expected to win its third consecutive title. The Crusaders are also the favorite to win a second consecutive state championship.

"Two years ago we were the unheard-of team and we came from nowhere," Gladys Rouwenhorst said. "So there could be another team out there that is going to step up and surprise us.

"But we want to show people that ranking is not a fluke. That it's not a mistake and that we're a pretty good team."

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