By HOWARD SENZELL
FOR THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Taylor Brownlee was an easy selection for large school All-Empire Most Valuable Player. The Maria Carrillo High senior was the best player on the best team in Sonoma County.
With Brownlee leading the Pumas’ offense with devastating spikes from her outside hitting position, the team compiled a 33-5-1 record and earned a North Bay League title.
While this past season was her best, Brownlee has been a starter since she was a freshman and Carrillo has won or shared the league title in each of those years.
Brownlee is proof of the adage: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”
She was cut the first time she tried out for a volleyball team.
“That was when I was in the fourth grade at Madrone Elementary,” she recalled with a laugh. “I felt bad at the time, but that just made me want to improve.”
By the time she was in eighth grade, her work ethic had elevated her to one of the top players on the Rincon Valley Middle School team.
“The more I played, the more I fell in love with game,” she said. “I wanted to play all the time, not just on the school team.” At that point, Brownlee was good enough to tryout for the Empire Volleyball Club, directed by Sonoma State coach Bear Grassl. This time, she wasn’t cut.
“Until I joined Empire, I’d been playing whatever sport was in season,” she recalled. “That all changed in a hurry. I gave up playing other sports and concentrated on volleyball year-round.”
The Empire club teams practice and play tournaments nearly year-round.
“Playing for Empire shaped everything I do now,” Brownlee said.
As she grew (she’s now 5-foot-11), Brownlee moved to the front line where she could use her height and jumping ability to elevate above the net for kill shots.
In her high school years, she set out to become a top-notch outside hitter. Jeff Nielson, her coach at Carrillo, and his assistants taught her well as did the Empire coaching staff.
“The single most important thing I’ve learned is to play smart,” Brownlee said. “Playing smart is about shot selection, court visibility, when to take swings and how to defend when an opponent makes a strong offensive shot.”
An outside hitter’s best friends are the setter and libero. This past season, Calan Seitz set Brownlee up for most of her kill shots while Kayla Boyce was digging out opponents’ shots and getting the ball up, so her taller teammate to go on the offensive.
Brownlee will continue her volleyball career at Wichita State University.
“I went to visit and fell in love with the volleyball program and campus,” she said. “I have family in Kansas and Oklahoma, so that clinched it for me.
“I’ll miss Santa Rosa, but I’m ready for a challenge.”
2011 ALL-EMPIRE LARGE SCHOOL VOLLEYBALL
Most Valuable Player: Taylor Brownlee, Maria Carrillo, senior
Kayla Boyce, Maria Carrillo, senior
Paula Cleary, Petaluma, senior
Ashley Harris, Casa Grande, junior
Emily Papale, Cardinal Newman, junior
Calan Seitz, Maria Carrillo, junior
Jersey Witous, Sonoma Valley, senior
Kianna Cassidy, Rancho Cotate, senior
Mikaela Francis, Maria Carrillo, junior
Nicole Kincade, Casa Grande, senior
Hana Lamb, Analy, senior
Amy Swanson, Petaluma, senior
Ali Wiesner, Maria Carrillo, junior
Coach of the Year: Jeff Nielson, Maria Carrillo