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Gina Casillas: Singular talent - One-handed standout's return benefiting COC

By Heather Gripp
Staff Writer

L.A. Daily News

Gina Casillas of College of the Canyons.(John Lazar / Daily News)
VALENCIA -- The coach raves about Gina Casillas' value to the College of the Canyons women's volleyball team. Casillas brings experience as the lone remaining player from the 2000 conference champions, she adds height in the middle and is a powerful hitter. She's the type of player who didn't have any trouble earning All-Western State Conference honors as a freshman.

It isn't mentioned until much later Casillas does all this despite having only one hand. She was born without a left hand but rarely has considered it a handicap, as she's lived a life she said revolves around sports. The way Casillas plays volleyball makes it easy for the rest of the Cougars to forget there is anything different about her.

"She's a good player," said Canyons setter Tara Coe, who has been Casillas' teammate since their days at Hart High.

"I've never heard anyone say anything about it. She's just another player. Sometimes maybe the other team will say something, then she goes out and proves them wrong."

Although the negative comments are rare, Casillas feeds off them.

"Opposing teams, sometimes I'll hear them say, 'Hit it to No. 28, she can't do anything,' " Casillas said. "I just shut 'em down. It doesn't really bother me."

Her statistics support the claim. Casillas ranks among the WSC's top 20 in kills and kill percentage. She hit .500 last Friday in a victory over Hancock, then hit .579 the next day in a win against Pasadena.

"There's no doubt, offensively she's a dominant presence," Cougars coach Lisa Hooper said.

Casillas hit .356 two years ago as a freshman and was expected to be a key part of last year's young team. However, her grades slipped as she cared for her mother, who was suffering from lung cancer, and Casillas was declared academically ineligible.

"It really hurt us last season not having her," said Hooper, whose team finished third in the WSC South Division last year.

With her mom's health improved, the 20-year-old Casillas is better able to concentrate on pursuing a degree in communications, which she hopes will lead to a job in sports broadcasting or as a sports writer.

She was back with the Cougars for informal spring workouts and summer training.

"Coach was always like, 'Keep in shape, we'd love to have you back,' " Casillas said.

Staying in shape was harder than Casillas anticipated, though. Her mind was often on the sport, but she didn't find time for more than occasional visits to the gym last fall. Her stamina and quickness have suffered. Casillas readily admits, "I'm not in the shape I was a year ago," but is devoted to returning to her old form in hopes of playing at a four-year school.

"That year off has hurt her," Hooper said. "She's not as dominant as she was. She's still getting back into shape. Her offense is great, but going corner to corner is more difficult."

Another drawback is the change in scoring since Casillas' previous stint with the Cougars. The switch from side-out scoring to rally scoring, where a point is awarded on every play regardless of which team serves, places greater importance on defense. Defense is the part of the game where Casillas' having only one hand becomes a factor as she is not effective on the left side, according to Hooper.

Under the old system, the Cougars often replaced Casillas when they were serving. Now, she is usually a member of the starting lineup and remains on the court for what the Cougars estimate is more than 60 percent of each match because of her hitting.

Even when she's on the sideline, Casillas tries to find ways to contribute to the team that is 6-3 entering tonight's home match against Santa Barbara.

"Since I've been playing longer than everyone on the team, I just go out there every game and try to set a good example and do whatever I can to help them and keep the intensity up," Casillas said. "If I see players letting down, I try to pick them up. ... Most of them have played on good teams before in high school or club, so they know what it's like to win championships, I don't have to tell them too much.

"Now we're totally jelling and coming together. I'd like to win the conference, and I think we can."

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