The Garner name has echoed through the South Pasadena High School gymnasium ever since Abby Garner made her debut on the court in 2018. A trailblazer in her own right, she helped pave a path for her younger sisters. The ties to the SPHS varsity girls’ volleyball team remain unbroken, as current senior Jenna Garner and freshman Ella Garner recently concluded their 2023 season.
Having left her mark after graduating in 2022, Abby Garner now guides the next generation as an assistant coach at Mayfield Senior in Pasadena, a role that speaks to her passion for the sport.
Jenna Garner is set to embark on her journey at the University of Pennsylvania, where she will continue her academic and athletic career.
Meanwhile, Ella Garner capped her inaugural high school season as one of the two freshmen on the varsity squad.
The Garner sisters’ love for volleyball blossomed effortlessly. Parents Rob and Kristie Garner fostered an environment of openness and support, allowing their children to explore various interests. Abby, Jenna and Ella Garner consistently gravitated back to the exhilarating world of volleyball, including a few detours to explore soccer along the way.
“We always try to expose them to everything, like gymnastics and Ella did some theater, just to see what sparks their interest,” Kristie Garner said. “It always ended up funneling and centering back around soccer and volleyball. It cracks me up because no matter how hard we push, like, ‘give this a shot for one season,’ they always retreated back to volleyball.”
Abby Garner started her volleyball career playing for the YMCA when she was 8 years old. Merely two years later, she stepped onto the stage of competitive play, joining the ranks of the San Gabriel Elite Volleyball Club. It didn’t take long for her to develop a profound love for the sport, fueled by her early experiences.
Abby Garner had every intention of continuing her playing career beyond the high school level, garnering interest from East Coast schools before eventually receiving an offer from Radford University in Virginia.
“I didn’t really see it as a good fit for me school-wise,” Abby Garner said. “I wanted to go to a school that satisfied my educational wants, my social wants and checked all of my boxes so I didn’t end up going there.”
Instead, Abby Garner decided to stay near her roots and enrolled at Pasadena City College. Her ambitions point her toward following in her father’s footsteps at UCLA, or walking a similar academic trail as her mother at the University of Texas in Austin.
“I got offered to play at PCC but I decided I wanted to just be a student and also a coach,” Abby Garner said. “I got into coaching at City Volleyball Club and that’s where I met Ryan [Duncan] who coached at Mayfield.”
Now, Abby Garner finds herself in a unique position coaching alongside her father at City Volleyball Club. Leading the 13 Gold team, she stands as the head coach with the support of her father by her side. She started coaching at City Volleyball a year earlier as an assistant for the 15 team. Rob Garner made a promise that if she found joy in the experience and wished to continue, he would gladly step in as her assistant.
“Rob has a great relationship with all of his girls; he’s like the ultimate girl-dad and he supports all of them in anything they want to do,” said Stefanie Wigfall, the founder of City Volleyball Club. “We knew his being by Abby this season would be perfect because he would be able to provide the support that she needs. He’s a more experienced, professional, older voice to help her navigate some of the challenges that can come with coaching.”
Jenna and Ella Garner are also volleyball players for City Volleyball. Jenna Garner faced the challenging choice of transitioning from San Gabriel Elite to City Volleyball, a decision influenced by her older sister’s earlier move for greater playing opportunities. Abby Garner’s switch served as a catalyst, instilling the confidence in Jenna Garner to follow suit a year later.
Beyond the volleyball court, Jenna Garner is also a dedicated soccer player. She kicked off her soccer endeavors as a 7-year-old with the American Youth Soccer Organization, progressing to the club level by the sixth grade. While her enthusiasm for soccer matched that of volleyball, Jenna Garner found herself not quite on par with some club teammates until a pivotal change — a shift to playing goalkeeper.
“I transitioned to goalkeeper and I was actually not bad at that because it’s very similar to volleyball in terms of having lateral movement,” Jenna said. “The second I watched [Abby] play club volleyball, just like getting to travel, the competitive environment and a court full of people watching, it’s just something you don’t really get in soccer. I think that not even playing but just watching my sister be in that environment really grabbed my attention.”
Jenna Garner’s commitment to volleyball, marked by years of hard work, proved to be a wise decision, as it opened a door for her to pursue her passion at the University of Pennsylvania. The recruiting process, known for its challenges, demands resilience from athletes seeking their ideal collegiate fit. Fortunately, she had the support of her family and the guidance of Wigfall to navigate this process and find her next team.
“It was hard. … I was on my club team watching all my friends commit to their college and find their new home. As much as I supported them it also just made me think like, ‘When am I going to find my place?’” Jenna Garner said. “It required a lot of patience but [my parents] said it’s a marathon, not a sprint, and to just hang in there. I’m really, really proud about my University of Pennsylvania offer and I think it demonstrates who I am as a student and also an athlete.”
Wigfall, Jenna Garner’s coach with the City 17 Gold team, praised the commitment of the Pennsylvania-bound player, noting her maturity, competitiveness and responsibility. Coaching her was always a joy for Wigfall, who took pride in assisting her through the recruiting process.
“I think the world of [Jenna] and I helped her finalize her college commitment,” Wigfall said. “I always try to frame it like yes, this is an important decision but it’s all of your hard work, commitment and talent that is even giving you the opportunity to make this tough decision. These are just such good problems to have … so I really just tried to encourage her to understand that there wasn’t really a bad decision that she could make.”
Following in the footsteps of her older sisters, Ella Garner is carving a similar path. Initially drawn to soccer, she transitioned to focusing on volleyball in high school while keeping soccer as a hobby.
“Last year I was really debating whether I wanted to stick with volleyball or go back to soccer because I would play a lot during my free time and I was kind of more interested in that,” Ella Garner said. “It was my first year at a different volleyball club so I thought I would stick with volleyball for that year. This year I was going to do school soccer but I realized I’m just going to focus on volleyball and soccer is more of a sport I want to do for fun.”
Beyond the court or the pitch, Ella Garner, like any typical teenager, relishes beach trips, indulges in shopping sprees and seeks thrills at Six Flags Magic Mountain. However, volleyball takes center stage in her life, especially after earning a spot on South Pasadena’s varsity team as a freshman. She shared the court with Jenna Garner for a season, reminiscent of Jenna Garner’s previous opportunity to play alongside Abby Garner a few years ago.
“I’ve grown up with a lot of people on varsity, like a lot of Jenna’s friends. I’ve known them for a while and I’m really close with them,” Ella Garner said. “It was an experience that I could only have once and I didn’t want to turn that down. Abby and I were talking and she said it was really fun playing on the same team as her sister, so I wanted to experience that too.”
Despite the sisters’ age gap limiting them playing on the same team together, the Garners, including their father Rob, found solace and camaraderie on the makeshift “COVID Court” in their backyard. Conceived by Rob Garner just before the COVID-19 pandemic, the compact space became a haven for family volleyball, where the three sisters and their father shared spirited matches. As the pandemic unfolded, and the board games and movies were exhausted, the COVID Court seamlessly integrated into the daily routine of the Garner household.
“I definitely didn’t think it would turn into such a big hit. You think every once in a while it would be nice to get out there and get a few reps,” Rob Garner said. “Usually we would play me and Ella versus Jenna and Abby. They probably won more than we did but most of the games were pretty competitive.”
Amid the endless hours of play for father and daughters, Kristie Garner sat on the makeshift sideline, taking on the role of the unofficial scorekeeper. Daisy, the family dog, nestled comfortably in her lap, added a touch of warmth to each match.
“I have to say, that is the time in the backyard when it’s just loose and fun,” Kristie Garner said. “There’s usually music playing or a football game on the TV outside and they are having a good time.”
The Garner family, close-knit and supportive, gathers for dinners three to four times a week when schedules align. The trio of sisters turns to each other for life advice, solidifying their strong bond. Volleyball, a defining element of the family’s narrative, further enhances the ties that bind them together.
First published in the November 24 print issue of the South Pasadena Review.