The view of Coachella Valley from the Indio hills.

University High School volleyball team rolling behind inseparable duo

Jaelah Hutchison and Franny Arnautou stood on their home court, surrounded by an unfolding frenzy.

They had just led University to the Bay Counties League West girls’ volleyball championship, defeating Convent in straight sets 25-18, 25-22, 25-13. It was the Red Devils’ 15th win in a row, a stretch that included an unbeaten run through league play (10-0), during which they dropped just one set. Their record stood at 28-3, just six wins shy of the program record set in 2003. </p>

“When we play our best, we’re just joking around with each other, literally laughing all the time,” Hutchison said. “It’s positive energy and it translates.”

“And when we’re struggling,” Arnautou said, “it’s usually when we’re tense and nervous and don’t have the ability to shake things off and have fun.”

Arnautou, a junior, and Hutchison, a senior, have been friends since attending middle school together. When Arnautou entered University, Hutchison took her under her wing. Now, they finish each other’s sentences. “We’re pretty similar,” Arnautou said. “Very similar,” Hutchison added.

“And we’re both competitive,” Arnautou said. “Very competitive,” Hutchison stressed.

Against Convent, they combined to devastating effect. Hutchison, a middle blocker who has committed to Colgate, finished with a team-best 12 kills, while Arnautou tied for second with 10. Several tandem blocks, punctuated by some of Arnautou’s favorite celebrations, brought the capacity crowd to its feet.

There are multiple reasons for this season’s success, but familiarity provides the biggest clue. University lost just one senior from a season ago, and the same core group has played together for two seasons running. A new coaching staff only bolstered that momentum.

Upon arriving this summer from Sacred Heart Prep in Atherton, Damien Hardey and Camille Board didn’t just begin implementing their own style. They reached out to the players and worked with them individually.

“It was obvious that they cared,” Arnautou said.

It didn’t take long for the coaches to realize that this team’s jocular nature fueled its success.

“They’re at their best when they’re at the edge of fooling around,” Hardey said. “They have fun, but they’re still focused.”

Hardey sensed that the team hadn’t been at its peak in recent weeks. The Red Devils responded with a strong week of practice ahead of the league championship. They appear close to capturing top form at the perfect time.

Ranked sixth in the North Coast Section rankings, University earned a three seed in the Division 5 bracket. The Red Devils will face 14th-seeded Drew (14-13) at home today at 7 p.m. The winner advances to Saturday’s quarterfinals against either sixth-seeded Marin Academy (21-13) or 11th-seeded Redwood Christian (17-14).

“We lost in the semifinals the last couple years,” Arnautou said. “We’re not going to lose again.”

In Hutchison, University has one of the section’s preeminent forces.

“She’s a game-breaker,” Hardey said. “Either she’s going to get her swings or the other team is going to key on her, which opens up everybody else.”

Though a setter at club level, Arnautou is predominantly an outside hitter for University.

“If they need me to hit, I’m ready,” Arnautou said. “I just want to win.”

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