SDJA volleyball group ‘ties’ winning, caring for others


Shannon Saffer has been involved in community service and volunteering for years. She is the Jewish Community Center’s incoming Community Service Board’s Executive Leader.

Savanna Lurie designed T-shirts for last year’s annual “Dig Pink” breast cancer awareness events.

The San Diego Jewish Academy girls’ volleyball standouts, both incoming seniors, are like many athletes throughout the nation involved in community involvement at some level.

But to hear them tell it, caring for others isn’t just something that’s encouraged by the program — it’s the essence of the program.

“Through that,” Saffer said, “I learned how to be a leader, which I’ve brought back to the court.”

Saffer and Lurie’s commitment to community involvement was instilled by SDJA coach Melissa Maxwell-Junge since both were in sixth grade. That was in 2008, Maxwell-Junge’s first year running the program.

Maxwell-Junge, a social worker, has made helping others — on and off the court — an integral part of the team’s culture.

And at SDJA, caring for others and winning have gone hand in hand.

The Lions have made the playoffs all six seasons since Maxwell-Junge took over what was a downtrodden program.

“There’s some teams where you just play to win, and they put all their effort into improving their skills,” Lurie said.

“We put a lot of effort into improving our skills, too, but we do a lot of team bonding. Everything is based on helping the team, so if you get subbed out, or if you’re put in a position that you’re not extremely comfortable in, you know you’re doing it for the team, so that’s kind of a big thing.

“We want everyone to feel comfortable at all times so that they’ll play their best.”

Lurie and Saffer are among the key returnees on a Lions team that Maxwell-Junge projects to be perhaps one of the best in program history.

Lurie was a first-team All-Coastal League North selection last season and Saffer an honorable mention.

Others to watch include standout outside hitter Sara Chitlik, an incoming junior, who’s among the team’s most talented returnees. Incoming freshman Sophia Flores, a 6-foot middle blocker, is a potential impact player with great raw ability, Maxwell-Junge said, but it has not yet been determined whether she’ll start the season on the varsity team.

Lurie and Saffer have played on the varsity team since they were freshmen. Both have the potential to play at four-year colleges, Maxwell-Junge said.

And both bring more to the Lions than just physical talents.

“They bring unity, they bring leadership and they bring enthusiasm,” Maxwell-Junge said.

Lurie and Saffer exemplify what Maxwell-Junge has nurtured in the program, with both players going all-in on the Lions’ unselfish credo.

“The biggest thing (Maxwell-Junge) has taught me is how to be a team player, putting the team before yourself,” Saffer said.

But team unity starts with taking time to address whatever is on the minds of her players.

At the start of practices, Maxwell-Junge asks players not about their game-readiness, but how their days went.

Before home matches, the team gathers in a circle, with players discussing anything that might be bothering them in a ritual that looks more like group therapy than adrenaline-pumping pre-game rallying. The Lions call it their “shoe-tying” ritual.

“We talk about things outside volleyball,” Saffer said. “We get it all out and we kind of communicate with each other, and then we all tie our shoes.

“Then we leave all that other stuff behind.”

Does it help?

“I think so,” Saffer said. “You get (your problems) out of your system and it sets the mood for the rest of the game.”

This approach to coaching results in more caring, more trust, and more communication between players, Saffer said.

And she believes it improves performance, too.

“I think it helps when the team has a bunch of good players that are really nice to each other and are friendly,” Saffer said.

“You can’t just have a team with a bunch of good players that don’t actually connect at all. (Volleyball) is a sport where you actually need to connect on the court, so having the nicer people and being able to communicate with each other and making like a family bond makes a really big difference, because then you know how you’re connecting with the players and it’s just a better game.

“And it’s more fun that way.”