Sondheimer: Loyola High's Sean Kelly seeks fantastic finish and section volleyball title

Sean Kelly, the best 18-year-old boys’ volleyball player in America, is not standing pat on his talents. When Loyola High had a week off from school last month, he called coach Mike Boehle and asked him to open the gym and feed him passes.

“His work ethic and what he wanted me to do was pretty amazing,” Boehle said.

At 6 feet 7 and 180 pounds, Kelly towers over most. Then, when he leaps and crushes the ball, it’s like experiencing a mini-earthquake as it hits the gym court.

“He can take us to another level by himself. He can take over a match by himself,” Boehle said.

Kelly was captain of the U19 USA national team and MVP of the Pan Am Cup in 2022. He gets straight A’s in school and is so humble you’d never know he was an All-America. But make no mistake, he’s not satisfied.

This is his fourth and final season at Loyola, and he’s never won a Southern Section Division 1 championship. Last season the Cubs were upset by Corona del Mar in the semifinals. They came back to win the regional championship but the section title is priority No. 1 this season.

“It’s definitely motivating me,” he said. “It’s the fourth shot I’ve gotten and the last one.”

Sean Kelly of Loyola High poses for a photo
Sean Kelly of Loyola is the No. 1 volleyball player in the nation and headed to UCLA. (Eric Sondheimer / Los Angeles Times)

Kelly is headed to UCLA after he graduates high school. That was a major change in thinking. He originally committed to Princeton, then surprised the volleyball world with a reversal.

“It was just a change in mindset for me,” he said. “I think Princeton is a great school and great program, but I thought UCLA was best for me playing volleyball in the [Mountain Pacific] conference. Being closer to home is always nice. I thought about it for a couple months.”

One of Kelly’s offseason focuses has been gaining strength. It’s something he believes UCLA will be able to help him with. And who knows how powerful Kelly will become with improvement in the weight room.

“I think their strength program is is one of the best in the country,” he said. “I want to see the difference.”

For now, Kelly will try to elevate himself and teammates in becoming the best in Southern California volleyball this season. The Cubs were 29-2 last year and return 6-7 super sophomore Blake Fahlbusch as well as 6-2 Parker Schloss, 6-4 Emmett Martin and 6-4 Simon Capps.

“Every teammate needs to hold each other accountable,” Kelly said. “Getting on your teammates when they trust you is important to getting them better. If your teammates trust you and you’re a little hard on them at one point, it gets much easier later and that’s a big part of leadership. No yelling but holding each other accountable.”

As usual, there’s lots of talent throughout Southern California.

Corona del Mar returns 6-6 outside hitter Sterling Foley, a USC commit. Mater Dei has 6-8 middle blocker Tyler Robinson, a USC commit. Victor Loiola of Mira Costa is a 6-4 outside hitter and Long Beach State commit. Jake Pazanti of Huntington Beach has been one of the best players in the Sunset League as a 6-3 setter and Long Beach State commit.

In the City Section, Chatsworth is considered the title favorite. A player to watch is Tom Altankhuyag of Eagle Rock. He’s a 6-7 middle blocker. “That guy is legitimate,” Granada Hills coach Tom Harp said.

Meanwhile, Kelly will continue to thrive and seek perfection without drawing attention to himself other than by his own play.

“I try to stay humble at all times,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any reason to boast because there’s always something to improve on. I love playing. It always fires me up.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.