Saito Hirano SPHS web
Maddie Saito, left, and Maddy Hirano have not only earned their way onto Varsity, they’re key components of a young team filled with talent. (Photos by MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo)

Rafu Sports Editor

SOUTH PASADENA.–At one point in the third game of South Pasadena High’s match against visiting La Cañada on Oct. 9, one of the home team’s players spotted a slime of some sort on the floor, just under the net.

“Eeeww, gross!” she bellowed, drawing all attention away from the game.

“Yeah, that was sweat, and it was mine,” confessed South Pas sophomore libero Madison Hirano. But she wasn’t apologetic, not in the least. “Sweat means you’re working hard, and that’s what it takes to win,” she insisted.

The statement may be the perfect encapsulation of the attitude carried onto the court by Hirano (no relation to the writer of this story) and her entire team. The 15-year-old shares something else with a Tiger teammate as well – a name.

“We were born with the same name, but it wasn’t planned that way,” joked frosh outside hitter Madison Saito, who eagerly flashed a wry sense of humor throughout the interview. She and Hirano both go by the nickname Maddie (or Maddy), which Saito said can be confusing to some, but “We know who we are.”

Far more remarkable than the name coincidence is the fact that Saito has made the Varsity team as a frosh and Hirano is starting as a sophomore. South Pas head coach Ben Diaz said he has plenty of underclass players, but the squad is solid as a whole.

Hirano, Madison web
“She’s little, but she’s fast and she covers a lot of ground,” South Pas head coach Ben Diaz said of the 5-foot-1 Hirano.

“They’re young still, but they’ll mature with practices and the games,” Diaz explained. “We have a good team.”

The Tigers posted a three games to one win over sixth-ranked La Cañada, after winning the Rio Hondo League championship last season and breaking a string of 10 straight titles for La Cañada. It was South Pas’ first league crown since 1982.

After last Tuesday’s win at Blair, the Tigers improved to 8-5, and are a perfect 4-0 in  league. They look to extend their conference play winning streak to 17 when they take on Temple City Thursday afternoon.

With the likes of senior hitter Sophia Hathaway and blocker Shanovi Bass up front, South Pas’ current success in league may be interpreted as a statement, that the young, disciplined Tigers are going to be a force in the Rio Hondo for years to come.

At libero, the 5-foot-1 Hirano has become an integral part of the Tigers’ game plan. Diaz said her confidence has improved greatly over the course of a year.

“She’s little, but she’s fast and she covers a lot of ground,” he explained. “She’s not timid, which is a good thing. That will help us go far.”

Diaz praised Hirano’s leadership in the back row, calling her an “anchor.”

“I expect a lot from her, and she expects a lot from herself as well,” he said.

Both Hirano and Saito are relatively new to volleyball, having first tried their hands at the sport around the sixth grade.

“I was interested after playing at a volleyball club, and I just fell in love with the sport,” recalled Saito, who, for good measure, has also earned a spot on South Pas’ girls’ Varsity basketball team. She’s currently sidelined with a minor back strain, possibly suffered during basketball.

The girls have both honed their skills by flinging themselves into the sink-or-swim arena of travel club ball. They are on separate teams within the San Gabriel Elite Volleyball Club, an organization renowned for its successful – and intense – development of young players.

“Part of the reason they’ve excelled to this degree is the fact that they play for a highly competitive club,” explained Saito’s father, Chris. “They went last year to the National Championships in Minneapolis, and I think they’ve had the experience of playing at a level where the stakes are really high, and that’s helped them at such a young age to make Varsity.”

His daughter agreed. “It’s a great experience,” she said. “You play your hardest, you play for the medal and for the team, and I think you come out of it a better player.”

Hirano got an additional – if rather expected – vote of confidence from her mother, Aya, herself a former standout on the court.

Hirano celebrate web
With Hirano at libero and Saito (not pictured) learning the outside hitter position, the Tigers are looking to repeat as Rio Hondo champions.

“She’s good, she’s so good,” Aya Hirano said. “She works hard, and she’s really progressed since she started playing.”

At nationals, Hirano’s team finished as the ninth-best in the nation, while Saito’s club ended in 17th place.

As to why she’s starting in a position commonly occupied by an upperclass player, Hirano said it’s all about the effort. “I guess I try to work really hard and try for every ball.”

Academically, both girls are equally solid off the court, posting straight A’s in their classes. They grumble a bit about strict teachers and homework, not to mention the time management struggles.

“It’s hard when you have practice after school every day, then you have to rush home and do your homework, and still find time to eat and have friends,” Saito said.

Diaz said Saito’s skills and her understanding of the game make her a valuable addition to the Varsity team.

“She’s starting to catch on to what we like in the program. Having the others around helps her grow up faster. We have a good team, so that’s going to make her better,” he explained.

For her part, Saito is enjoying the camaraderie as much as the sport.

“I love the team energy and how we are all bonded on the court,” she said. “We all hustle and go for every ball, and we encourage each other to do our best. I think that’s basically what helps us be the best team possible.”

Hirano, who earned an All-Rio Hondo League honorable mention for 2013, has begun to consider college choices, although she’s unsure if volleyball will be a major part of it. She’s eyeing her father’s alma mater, UC Berkeley, as well as Claremont and UCLA.

The immediate focus is on the Tigers’ next five matches, all league contests, including a rematch with La Cañada. Chris Saito sees plenty of good news to come from one or more players by the name of Madison.

“These are two young girls who have the drive and the love of the game to excel at volleyball,” he said. “They’re good teammates, that may be what’s best about them. They’re always striving to do their best and I think that’s indicative of their upbringing and their makeup. They like to do their best in representing a great community like South Pas, and hopefully there will be more good things about them in the papers to come.”

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