Leafa Juarez — graceful as a gazelle, tough as a tiger


Volleyball player Leafa Juarez grabs the volleyball net at the Long Beach City College Beach Volleyball Complex on April 28. She said she prepares for each match by praying. (Ma. Gisela Ordenes | The Union)

Leafa Juarez is preparing for another kill. She leans forward, knees slightly bent, ready to spring into action. She gives the signal of two fingers behind her back, and bides her time.

When the ball comes back, she stretches her 5-foot-10 frame, leaps with the deftest of touches, and she tips the ball over the tape. The ball drops to the ground on the other side of the court, close to the net.


The 20-year-old Juarez holds the record as the 2022 All-South Coast Conference Women’s volleyball kills leader with 307 kills, averaging 3.74 kills per set. She had a career-high 28 kills, tying with Mikayla Clark, who recorded 28 kills in five sets.

Juarez did it in four.

Juarez put on a stellar performance in the conference opener against the Pasadena City College Lancers.

The opposing team’s coach said Juarez “played out of this world.”

The Lancers were on a 25-match undefeated streak going into the game.

The Lancers were the reigning South Coast Conference champions, capturing the title with a perfect 18-0 record. The Juarez-led Warriors ended their win streak. She recorded four aces in that game.

The many ways Juarez could attack the ball are fully displayed during the pair’s state championships. She’s a sight to behold on the court, gazelle-like with her long limbs, long lashes, and elegant moves. But she wasn’t always this way.

“She was completely uncoordinated,” recalls her mother, Natasha Juarez.

When Leafa was 10, her mother brought her to a volleyball tryout at the urging of Jessica Juarez, Leafa’s aunt.

“We went, and this was her very first time playing anything,” Natasha said. “It was the worst time ever. I was watching her and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, let me get out of here. This is crazy. What am I doing? Oh, my poor baby.’”

She refused to go to the next practice. Her mother brought her and left.

“I had to force her. I literally pulled her out of the car. I didn’t even attempt to watch her anymore,” Natasha said.

Michael Juarez (left), says Leafa Juarez (2nd from left) is a "daddy&squot;s girl." Natasha Juarez (3rd from left) says her second son Sebastian Juarez (right) was teasing Leafa Juarez about her interview today. "Leafa said, &squot;I&squot;m gonna go, I&squot;m gonna have an interview right now.&squot; And my son, was like &squot;For what? What? Why?&squot;" Natasha Juarez says. Photo by Ma. Gisela Ordenes at the Long Beach City College Beach Volleyball Complex on April 28, 2023.
Leafa Juarez poses with her family at the Long Beach City College Beach Volleyball Complex on April 28. From left: Michael Juarez, her father; Leafa; Natasha Juarez, her mother; and Sebastian Juarez, her older brother. (Ma. Gisela Ordenes | The Union)

“She just drove off,” Leafa recalls. “I was crying like, ‘I don’t want to be here.’”

Natasha said she did it to teach her daughter a lesson. Leafa was used to getting things her way, she’s the only girl in a brood of four.

“She’s our only daughter, so growing up she has always been the boss, just keeps everybody on their toes,” Natasha said.

The volleyball star comes from a family of athletes.

Her father, Michael, played football in high school and junior college. Her aunt, Jessica, played and was an assistant coach for El Camino women’s volleyball team.

All of Leafa’s brothers play football. Michael said he observed his children’s athleticism at an early age when he would bring them to the park.

To this day, Leafa’s parents have never missed a game to watch their daughter play.

“We haven’t missed a game, not a single one,” Natasha said.

An extra push was also what made her play beach volleyball, but this time it was from her coach, Le Valley Pattison.

Leafa has been playing indoor volleyball for 10 years since she first started at Torrance Volleyball Club. In high school, she played four years for El Segundo High School.

She earned All-SCC First Team in her second year at El Camino, leading the conference in kills, digs and aces.

“She didn’t love it at the beginning. We kind of made her do it,” Pattison said. “She was more of an indoor player. But she never quit. Never had an excuse. She just has come so far in her playing on our 1s (pair).”

Moving to beach volleyball from indoor wasn’t easy for Leafa.

“It was a hard transition from indoor,” Leafa said.

But in her first year playing beach as a 3s pair, she and her partner placed third in the conference.

She counts that as one of her greatest accomplishments.

“That drove me to keep pushing stuff. I guess it helped me know that anything is possible. I was a 3s pair and I was beating the 1s pair? It’s crazy,” she said.

Leafa attributes what she describes as a strong mindset that opened up windows of opportunities for her. She underlines the importance of being mentally tough as an athlete.

“You can be strong physically, but I think you need to be strong in the head,” Leafa said. “I think mental health is a big thing. It’s bigger than showing up physically.”

Growing up with three brothers who also play competitive sports toughened Leafa.

Leafa’s brothers may have unwittingly trained her to deal with bullies in the crowd. She said she prepares for matches by praying for everyone, including opponents. But when there are hecklers in the stands, she doesn’t run like a gazelle, she fights like a tiger.

“I like to match people’s energy. So if they are mean, I will be mean back. I talk back,” Leafa said. “I feel like I play better when I’m mad. So when people make me mad I think I play so much better. And my coach, Le Valley, said it too. There have been times when the other opponent says something disrespectful and then it turns me up, my drive is boosted.”

Pattison agrees.

“I think (being mad) turns up her intensity a little bit. So that’s definitely how she likes to play. You can tell in the game if all of a sudden something happened,” Pattison said. She turns it right up a little bit and gets on it.”

Leafa said she learned the “next-play mentality” from her coaches. Her coaches always tell her to “Live to see another day.”

“It means that the problems that you’re facing now don’t mean it’s the end of the world. So just move on, you’re going to see another day,” Leafa said. “Or even something as small as losing a point, they teach me to get over that.”

Michael describes his daughter as “hilarious but tough.” Leafa’s beach volleyball partner, Diana Enriquez agrees.

“She’s super funny,” Enriquez said. “So I always tell people this, ‘Oh, if you want to laugh, just look at Leafa,’ just because of her facial expressions and like everything she says and does.”

The pair has been playing for only a couple of games. The team had a partner switch in the middle of the season, but they enjoy playing with each other and it shows in the results.

“She’s super talented, super athletic, really reliable. If she’s being served up, I know she can sight out. She’s also very positive. She’s just always uplifting and funny. So she brings great energy,” Enriquez said.

Leafa Juarez is leaving El Camino after the 2023 fall semester with a degree in Administration of Justice She wrapped up her season with a shot at the 3C2A Pairs State Championships with Enriquez.

“This is her last season at El Camino so we’re kinda dreading that being that we love being able to attend all of her games,” Natasha said. “We don’t know where she is going, but she’s definitely going to continue her education and playing.”

Leafa said she’s hoping to transfer out for both indoor and beach volleyball

“Hopefully. I’m praying,” she said.

“I want to stay in California. I want to be close to my family. But right now, I don’t know what school I want to go to. I just know that God has a plan for me. If He doesn’t want me here, then hey, I won’t be here … But I know that if I continue to keep God in my life, He’ll find a way for me.”