A day at the beach for Immanuel girls squad

New beach volleyball program attracts 15 players for first year of interscholastic competition on new six-court facility at Immanuel Sports Complex

Immanuel High beach volleyball player Mary Degraw lifts a service return as teammate Spencer Horn looks on during a team practice session on April 11. Junior Degraw and sophomore Horn, who are cousins, are the top two-player duo on the team roster ladder for the fledgling 15-player program, which practices and hosts matches at a new six-court beach volleyball complex located at the Immanuel Sports Complex that opened in August 2023. (Jon Earnest)
Immanuel High beach volleyball player Mary Degraw lifts a service return as teammate Spencer Horn looks on during a team practice session on April 11. Junior Degraw and sophomore Horn, who are cousins, are the top two-player duo on the team roster ladder for the fledgling 15-player program, which practices and hosts matches at a new six-court beach volleyball complex located at the Immanuel Sports Complex that opened in August 2023. (Jon Earnest)
Jon Earnest
Published April 15, 2024  • 
9:00 am

REEDLEY – Immanuel High School has joined a small wave of Central Section schools participating in a relatively new sanctioned interscholastic sport — girls beach volleyball.

The Eagles are in their first season of competition this spring, and have posted a 6-5 record against section schools ranging from the Fresno area to Bakersfield. Immanuel’s 15-player squad — grouped in a mini-league with Exeter High and Central Valley Christian of Visalia — practices and plays home matches at a new six-court sand-covered facility located next to the Kings River (west of the baseball diamonds) at the Immanuel Sports Complex.

The team is coached by Tori Ortman, a Southern California native who grew up in Huntington Beach and later played collegiately for Long Beach State and California Baptist University in Riverside. In addition to her beach volleyball coaching duties, she teaches sports science-related classes for Fresno City College and is an adjunct professor for online classes at Cal Baptist.

Ortman is excited with the roster of the Eagles’ first beach volleyball team.

“I think the best part about this group of girls is that they’re incredibly coachable,” she said of the players, who all have volleyball experience but had never before played the beach game. “They want to learn, and they really enjoy learning. The first week, we got through our nerves, and it’s been very smooth.”

Traditional indoor volleyball has six players on the court, but beach volleyball consists of two-player teams playing matches similar to tennis. High school team play has three pairs of players playing one another; compared to five pairs at the college level. Players are seeded in a ladder format (top one and two, three and four, etc.), which can change from match to match but must remain unchanged within a match.

Immanuel’s top duo this season is sophomore Spencer Horn and junior Mary Degraw. The pair are cousins (freshman Claire Horn is another cousin). Spencer Horn has played since eighth grade, and is on track to continue playing beach volleyball at the collegiate level according to Ortman.

“She’s been a big leader on our team technique-wise, and she knows the game,” she said of Horn. “And Mary has really stepped up and been a great defender for us. They are ones who have played their share together, and have developed a pretty good cohesiveness.”

Junior Leilah Hilvers is the team’s tallest “big” at 5 feet, 10 inches. And leads the three-four team, “She does a really good job taking space at the net, but I think her biggest strength is her ability to communicate and give directions quickly,” said Ortman.

The squad has just two seniors (Isabella Davila and Faith Bakker) and three juniors Degraw, Hilvers and Mikayla Zuniga. Other sophomores in addition to Spencer Horn are Lily Hughes and Tori Visser while seven freshmen are on the roster in Keilani Hilvers, Claire Horn, Vivian Vera, Preslee Rios, Ellsie Riddle, Ainsley Jackson and Addie Krause.

Ortman has been with the immanuel program since last season, but a 2022-23 campaign never got underway as record water levels in the Kings River in 2022-2023 covered much of the area where the courts were to be built. The facility was completed and ready for practices and competition in August 2023, and the program has continued to attract interested players.

“I had no idea how many kids were going to come to try out, and 15 of them showed up,” Ortman said. “We have an incredibly supportive athletic director [Chris Stevens], he’s given me a bunch of resources to help grow the program. We have great parents, they’re really wonderful and willing to help with food and raising money for the program.”

Immanuel was able to host an eight-school tournament earlier this spring, and on April 12 hosted a pair of non-league matches against Bullard (a 3-0 victory) and Yosemite (a 2-1 loss). Home matches on Tuesday, April 16 against Exeter and CVC will serve as the league tournament for the Eagles.

Ortman said the unique physical demands of beach volleyball have paid off for the team and should transition well to the traditional indoor game. In addition to regular assistant coach Tara Delk, Eagles head girls team coach Alyssa DenHartog also has attended practices to support the team.

“We’ve gotten so much faster in the last seven to eight weeks that we’ve been training,” she said. “[Playing in sand] helps your ability to move fluidly on the court. When you’re playing beach you’re moving in a movable surface, so you have to be able to change, pivot, cut and move different directions. I’m excited to see how they use what they’ve learned out here to further the indoor program.”

Seeding foe postseason beach volleyball play will take place later this month.

Jon Earnest
Reporter