QUARTZ HILL — Quartz Hill High School senior Ayjah Landers got a late start on the recruiting process.
The volleyball player started looking at her college options her junior year, just before the COVID-19 pandemic derailed the entire recruiting process early last year.
It did not deter Landers, who used her time to aggressively find herself a scholarship to play volleyball at the next level.
Landers’ determination culminated on November 12, when she signed a National Letter of Intent to California State University, Los Angeles.
“It’s really exciting,” Landers said. “It was a little touchy. The thing is, I started the recruiting process late, like I should have started emailing the end of my sophomore year. I didn’t really start emailing stuff until COVID started. So I just started gathering film, because I knew I wouldn’t be playing for a long time. So I gathered old film and that’s when I started emailing schools.”
Sanders made her verbal commitment on Oct. 23.
“Before COVID there were seven schools that she was looking at in February,” said Kendra Landers, Ayjah’s mother. “We actually went out and did a visit to one of the schools in March, five days before they shut the country down. We loved the school. We liked the campus. We liked the coaches. We met the team. She came back and recruiting came to a screeching halt for about 90 days. She had an appointment to go to Cal State LA, but it got canceled. She was supposed to go on March 16, I think.
“She kept emailing. She wasn’t getting responses. She kept emailing. Coaches would say ‘Well, we can’t really do anything right now. We can’t communicate. We can’t recruit. Stand by.’ She made her own highlight videos. She just kept pushing.”
Among the other schools Ayjah was interested in were the University of Idaho and UC Davis.
Ayjah, who was born in Pomona, said COVID really complicated the recruiting process in unexpected ways.
“A lot of schools don’t have enough money because the seniors are getting an extra year of eligibility, so it was a little bit of struggling,” Ayjah said. “There was a time where I emailed every coach and they would be like ‘We don’t have the money for it.’ So I’m glad I was able to get the opportunity. Cal State LA is such a good school and the coaching staff is so good, so I’m glad I was able to take this opportunity.
“Just how dedicated they were to getting me as a player. He is a great coach. I love talking to him. Just showing how determined he was to getting me on his team to play and offering me whatever he had to offer so that I’d be there. It was really heartwarming I guess you could say. It was just really nice to hear.”
Both Ayjah and her mother said she was able to develop a bond with Cal State LA coach Juan Figueroa, who is in his fourth year as head coach, guiding his team to the playoffs the last two seasons.
“The coach was amazing,” Kendra Landers said. “She’s talked to the coach and he was diligent in following up with her and communicating with her and supporting her with whatever decision she made. He was very honest with us.
“It came down to a zoom meeting and honestly during the zoom meeting they doubled her scholarship and he just really helped her, instill in her the confidence. That’s important in Ayjah, for a coach to say ‘I believe in you.’ Coach Figueroa was really supportive of her.”
Ayjah said she changed her initial goals of where and what type of school she wanted to attend.
“She wanted to leave the state, so that was one of the hard parts of accepting Cal State LA, because she said ‘Mom, I really want to go out of state,’” Kendra said. “But once she connected with them, she said ‘This is where I really want to be.’ She’s been to the campus, because she’s in the AVID program here, so that gave her the opportunity to tour a lot of the campuses. She already kind of knew what the atmosphere was kind of like and we’re excited.”
Ayjah said initially she wanted to go play for a Division 1 program. Cal State LA is in NCAA Division II.
“I just knew how much I really wanted to play and at the beginning of the year I was like ‘I’m only going to go Division 1. That’s my goal,’” Ayjah said. “But then I realized to play at any level, whether it’s D1, D2, D3 or NAIA, if you have talent, just thinking about that and not caring what division I play for; being persistent with emailing, even if I don’t get a response, emailing again, just figuring out if they have spots. I just had to keep it going. I think if I would have stopped I wouldn’t be able to play anywhere, so I just decided to keep it going and then Cal State LA became a big option for me.”
Cal State LA also fit Ayjah’s very specific academic plans, which go in much more detail than just majoring in psychology.
“After my first four years I’m going into the nursing program, so I can be a psychiatric nurse,” Ayjah said. “But my first four years, I’m just majoring in forensic psychology and then clinical psychology after that.
“Everyone in my family majored in psychology, so I’m already introduced to it at a younger age. Recently, probably my sophomore year, is when I had to decide what I want to do, because I knew I wanted to go to college. So then I took AP psychology my junior year and that kind of solidified everything. So I just like learning how we function, so that kind of concluded my plan. That’s what I wanted to do. No matter how much homework they assigned, I always enjoyed doing it. I like to learn about it.”
Ayjah’s father Lamont was also at the signing ceremony.
During her official signing ceremony, Quartz Hill High administrators praised Ayjah for her academic accomplishments.
“She had the athletic drive, you guys had the push to get her there, so thank you guys,” Quartz Hill High principal Zach Mercier said to Ayjah’s parents. “What’s exceptional about Ayjah is she also takes care of the other issues that go with school. She’s just not an athlete, she’s a student/athlete, being a student coming first. We are so proud of you.”
Kendra Landers also praised Quartz Hill volleyball coach David Gutierrez for Ayjah’s development as a player. Ayjah was a sophomore for the Rebels when they won a CIF-Southern Section championship.
“Her four years at Quartz Hill were incredible,” Kendra said. “Ayjah grew a lot. He taught her a lot. He helped her to mature and to look at things from a different perspective.
“Being on a team, when they won CIF with eight seniors, and she was new on the team. She wanted to be on varsity even though she knew she wouldn’t get the playing time. She wanted to be part of the team. She did get a chance to get in there at CIF and that was great for her, but her pride about belonging to the girls volleyball team just exuded all the time. She said ‘I don’t care if I don’t play. I’m not missing a practice.’ I think Ayjah may have missed two practices the whole time she’s been here. I really appreciate what Quartz Hill has done to help develop her as an athlete.”
Despite the suspension of high school athletics due to the pandemic, Ayjah has remained active in volleyball through her club team, Legacy in Santa Clarita, allowing her to still play four or five times a week during their season.
“This is just a great result of a lot of hard work and a lot of effort, so congratulations,” Gutierrez said.
Kendra said Ayjah was working out with a friend during their down time and asked for more weights to work out.
“She worked out, her and her friend,” Kendra Landers said. “They would meet at 5 o’clock. ‘We’re going to the aquaduct for a run.’
“So even when school wasn’t going and travel wasn’t going, she was still doing volleyball.”
Kendra said Ayjah is supposed to leave in August and would be moving onto campus early. Cal State LA’s first match is 17 days after school starts.
“She’s incredibly stubborn, I mean, tenacious,” Kendra Landers said. “Ayjah emailed probably 75 coaches since February and she wasn’t going to take no for an answer. She’s got a competitive spirit. She worked really hard on her grades. She’s got a 4.0 right now. She’s just focused. I’ve just always supported whatever my kids wanted.
“Ayjah’s been playing for seven years and she knew what she wanted and said ‘I’m going to go for it.’”