Granada Hills looks like the team to beat in City Section volleyball

As Jessica Eldridge skies for a resounding block, gravity suspends her pink-tinted hair for just a moment, revealing a “7” tattooed on her nape.

It’s a smaller, permanent copy of the number on her uniform. The Granada Hills High middle blocker started playing volleyball in the third grade, she said, because of her mom’s encouragement. And her mom’s lucky number was 17, so Eldridge chose to wear No. 7 — in her young mind the “little kid” of 17.

“It reminds me of my mom, and it’s a pretty lucky number in a bunch of cultures,” Eldridge said of getting the tattoo. “I wanted to honor that and respect that, and put some luck into my life.”

Roughly a decade later, Eldridge has never worn another number. But this could be the best version of No. 7 Granada Hills has seen — and it’s a key reason why Granada Hills is The Times’ team to watch in the City Section.

“Our middle this year should be strong,” longtime Highlanders coach Tom Harp said.

In summer league games against Van Nuys Grant and West Hills Chaminade on July 18, Eldridge was all over the court — reaching over the net to reject soft attacks, climbing an invisible ladder to spike sets from the middle.

With a lanky 6-foot frame, Eldridge was already the team’s top blocker last season and has been working on timing her attacks with setter Mason Kelly. If that relationship blossoms and Eldridge can use her reach to consistently beat opposing teams’ block, that’ll further Granada Hills’ scoring options.

“I feel really lucky and blessed to be able to have that opportunity to have such a big impact on the court,” Eldridge said of manning the middle. “It’s a big responsibility, definitely, but I’m ready to fill those shoes and happy to.”

That makes her a player to watch in the City Section, an area where strong middles are fewer and farther between, according to Lake Balboa Birmingham coach LeAnne Bennett-Riley. Of 28 Open Division All-City selections last season, just three were middle blockers.

“If you can stop the other team’s middles, you’re good,” Bennett-Riley said. “If the other team doesn’t have dominant middles, you have a chance.”

Granada Hills is stacked beyond the middle, though. All-City outside hitter Hannah Bernstein and her arsenal of shots is back. So, too, is crafty senior setter Kelly and junior top server Valeria Bellodas-Lazo.

Hannah Bernstein provides outside hitting for Granada Hills High.

(Luca Evans / Los Angeles Times)

All six City Section coaches The Times spoke with ranked Granada Hills at or near the top of predictions for best teams this fall. On paper, the placement is simple. Granada Hills returns three first-team All-City selections from last year — no other program returns more than one.

“Middle is strong. Outside is strong. Setter is strong,” Bennett-Riley said, chuckling. “They’re kind of strong at every position.”

“It’s always the best version of Granada we’re going to play,” said Woodland Hills Taft coach Arman Mercado.

This year’s version is especially motivated. They’ve made it to the City Section Open Division championships two years in a row but fell in 2020 to Palisades and in 2021 to Venice.

Bernstein, a member of both teams, put a hand over her heart when remembering the loss to the Gondoliers last year.

“That one hurt,” she said with a pained smile.

As she discussed her team’s fortunes, lHarp — dressed to the nines in Granada Hills green — ambled past.

“I hope you tell [The Times] we’re not very good yet,” Harp told Bernstein. “I don’t want to be on other people’s bulletin board.”

Too late.

He might be trying to avoid a target, but even the stoic Harp expressed his optimism.

“My expectations are pretty high right now,” he said.

Rounding out the rest of the top five before the first contest on the City calendar Aug. 12:

2. Taft

The senior duo of Prior Borick and Julia Bazylevych is ready to wreak havoc. The two won the inaugural City Section beach volleyball pairs championship in the spring, and it’s helped their passing and shot variety in the gym.

“Those two Taft girls are going to cause a lot of damage for the City Section,” San Pedro coach Sean Zuvich said.

3. Palisades

The first words out of coach Carlos Gray’s mouth when asked about his team come fall: “The rebuild is real.”

Nine seniors graduated in 2022. But star outside hitter Ava Pearce will return after tearing her ACL in the first tournament last season, and last season’s kills leader Carly Bloom is back. Plus, well … it’s Palisades.

“They’re always somewhere right around the championship,” Harp said.

4. Woodland Hills El Camino Real

The Royals were in a solid position last season — stocked with senior talent while fielding a strong junior class.

Some talent is gone, but returning opposite Grace Hazelton and setter Charlotte Wilson give coach Alyssa Lee senior leadership and were tabbed by Mercado as two of the best in the section to watch.

5. Venice

Can Venice run it back from last season’s championship-winning breakout? Probably not.

“For a program like Venice, for us to finally win the top division championship, it took a lot of dominoes to fall into the right places,” coach Allen Hunt said.

Strong senior leadership put those dominoes in place, and the Gondoliers are left to rebuild after a majority of the team graduated. All is not lost, however — Biko Hollie was one of the top outside hitters in the City as a junior, and Venice still has some young talent like junior Tinoa Woodward-Hart.

Also in the mix

—Chatsworth: Junior Lauren Pun could be one of the best setters in the city, per coach Sina Aghassy.

—Carson: Trying to return to perennial-contender form of last decade.

—Verdugo Hills: Cousins Yahaira and Ana Vazquez form a dynamic setter-middle tandem.

—San Pedro: Coach Sean Zuvich believes senior Kennedy Kordic — sister of former San Pedro baseball star Dylan Kordic — is the best libero in the City.

—L.A. Girls Academic Leadership Academy (GALA): Mercado believes the second-year program, playing in Division IV last year, could earn an Open Division selection come fall.

—Sherman Oaks CES: Senior transfer Stormy Grant-Gorence, coming from Southern Section powerhouse Chatsworth Sierra Canyon, elevates the Knights’ ceiling.