Six-foot senior Sophia Tulino of the La Costa Canyon girls’ volleyball team is the type of player who catches the eye of even the most casual fan when she’s on the court. A vibrant, multi-talented outside hitter, Tulino has been a four-year varsity player for the Mavericks and in a particularly impressive junior year, compiled a team high 454 kills and 53 aces while also collecting 40 blocks and 216 digs. Despite missing several matches this year after injuring her ankle in the opener, she tops the squad with 133 kills. But when second -year Head Coach Rachel Morris talks about her, the conversation turns to her personality, make-up and team-oriented nature, not statistics.
“Sophia’s biggest attribute, for sure, is her work ethic—she’s always one of, if not the hardest-working athlete on the floor,” says Morris. “Her passion and commitment are also huge. There is never a doubt about how badly she wants to win or compete for and with her teammates.
“She is definitely the most battle-tested attacker we have and her overall presence and experience are big for this squad—her teammates have so much confidence in her and feel at ease with her on the floor.”
It only takes a few minutes of dialogue with the Santa Clara-bound Tulino to come away with an initial appreciation for her maturity and leadership skills. She sounds a bit like a coach when responding to questions about her sport, her team and her goals. Now recovered from her injury and back in the LCC lineup, Tulino recently spent time talking on what she likes about this year’s Mavericks, the impact Morris has had on the program and how she decided on Santa Clara for her collegiate career.
Q—Your father (CSU Northridge) and mother (Regis) both played collegiate volleyball. When did you start playing?
TULINO—I was always exposed to the sport but my parents didn’t want me playing competitively until I was a little older, so I started playing when I was 12 years old. I’d played soccer, basketball and a few other sports prior to that and they always told me that if I didn’t love volleyball, I didn’t have to play.
But I did fall in love with it and am, obviously, still playing today. I enjoy everything about it—just being on the court, the team aspect and the competitiveness.
Q—La Costa Canyon has traditionally been among the San Diego volleyball elite. You had a big year as a junior and the team went 27-13. What was your take on last year’s results?
TULINO—Last year, I think our team did pretty well and grew a lot from the beginning of the season. It was our first year under our new Head Coach Rachel Morris so there were a lot of changes. The culture of the program was re-shaped, in a good way, and it felt like there were some bumps in the road like there are in any organization going through changes.
Some matches we had in the bag and kind of just sailed through them, not really stepping on the gas they way we could have. Our record suffered because we didn’t finish out a number of matches.
Q—How have those changes carried over to this season?
TULINO—The changes that Coach Morris brought in have created a more positive culture and made all three of the teams in our program (varsity, JV and freshman) more connected. We’re more of a family and more united in representing Maverick volleyball in a good, positive way.
The upperclassmen are paired with members of the JV and freshman teams and we’re there to talk with them and mentor them a little bit too. We have team lunches on the day of the game, all travel together and have developed a lot of traditions. Now that we’re into that routine, we’re hoping for an even better season since we didn’t finish as well as we wanted last year.
Q—How would you describe your role on the court?
TULINO—I feel responsible for leading the team in a positive way, being a leader on the court and making sure everyone’s comfortable working together—I think that’s important. When things get tough, sometimes that tends to separate people. I’ve got to make sure we maintain the unity and chemistry.
As far as my playing responsibilities, I need to focus on my passing, making sure we stay in system offensively. I want to be putting balls away on the outside, limiting mistakes and getting points any way I can.
Q—You’ve committed to play college volleyball at Santa Clara. How did that come about?
TULINO—I started talking with colleges a little in eighth grade and then during my freshman year. When I was a sophomore I decided to play for Santa Clara.
I never had a “dream school” or any particular part of the country I wanted to go. I did a lot of research, looked into about eight or 10 schools and made unofficial visits to six of them my sophomore year. I walked around campuses, met people and learned what I liked and didn’t like. At first, I thought I wanted to go to a bigger school with a big volleyball program. I ended up realizing that’s not for me and I felt I would probably thrive at a smaller school with a volleyball program where I could have an impact.
I originally didn’t think I’d like it but they recruited me first and I ended up falling in love with Santa Clara. There’s a great sense of community there. I’m grateful that my parents were so supportive of me trying to find a future home where I would best fit in. All the effort was worth it.
Q—You also play for the Wave Volleyball Club. How do high school and club volleyball differ?
TULINO—To me they’re both equally important. Different people have different priorities and a lot of them would say the club season is more important, more impactful to their volleyball careers. Club volleyball is really intense, there’s lots of travel, a longer season and a lot of effort.
Personally, I love the high school season and I think high school could be just as important if everyone believes that. There’s a lot of pride playing for your high school and if everyone buys into that, it could be just as important, fun and amazing.
Q—For the last three years, your sister, Emily, has been your LCC teammate. What’s that like?
TULINO—My sister and I are best friends. I actually consider her a friend before a sister, so it’s really fun to share something like volleyball in common. She’s a year younger and we don’t play the same position so there’s not a rivalry which makes it perfect.
Q—What kind of interests do you have off the court?
TULINO—I love going to the beach—being in the sun makes me happy and I like to be around people. I guess my personality on the court is kind of like my personality overall.
I also like to cook and bake. My favorite is making sausage with rice and veggies. I love mixed vegetables. Cooking seems like a nice way to spend my time when I don’t have anything else to do.
Q—Have you given any thought to your academic direction at Santa Clara?
TULINO—I plan to major in public health in hopes of doing something in the area of kinesiology or physical therapy when I’m older. Santa Clara doesn’t have a kinesiology major but I figured I would have to go to graduate school anyway so I decided that public health would be a good choice before pursuing a masters in kinesiology or physical therapy.
Q—In the past couple of seasons, what has separated LCC from the very top teams in San Diego? What makes you feel that this year’s team could close that gap?
TULINO—Honestly, I think physically we were right there with the top teams but volleyball is also a very mental sport and I think that’s where our teams really had to work and grow. When you go up 2-0 and lose, that’s definitely a mind-set thing. We’ve been working on going into each set like it’s the first set of the match.
This year, we’re definitely more balanced offensively. We have a lot of dynamic players and we can run a really cool offense as long as we stay in system. I also like our team chemistry, work ethic and focus in practice. We’re pushing ourselves and each other to be the best we can and be able to accomplish our goals.
Q—And what are those goals?
TULINO—I would love to win the Avocado West League, CIF, State, everything. For me, I would love to beat Torrey Pines. Our senior class has never beaten Torrey Pines.
In addition to all that, I just want to have fun and make it a memorable season. I love everyone on this team and hope we can work together to make some great memories in my last year of high school. Did I mention I’d love to beat Torrey Pines?