At Wednesday’s volleyball practice in the Pitman High gymnasium, Pride coach Kristen Pontes-Christian conducts drills with her head on a swivel, as wayward volleyballs whiz past her from every direction.
The veteran coach is used to safely navigating her way through workouts while hitters consistently deliver thunderous spikes to targets no larger than a dinner plate.
But that’s in the fall. This is the spring, and Pontes-Christian has taken on the responsibility of coaching the boys volleyball team as the Central California Athletic League adds the sport for the first time. Accuracy isn’t in the boys’ repertoire quite yet.
The Pride’s maiden voyage will be today at 9 a.m. in Newman at the Orestimba High tournament.
Make no mistake, Pontes-Christian is one of the best volleyball coaches in Northern California. In 15 seasons as the girls’ head coach, the Turlock native has compiled an overall record of 342-150-2, which includes three Sac-Joaquin Section championships, 13 consecutive playoff appearances, nine conference titles, four 30-win seasons (including a 44-2 campaign in 2014 when the Pride were Northern California champs) and a 58-game league winning streak from 2011 through 2015.
But her coaching abilities will be put to the test, perhaps like at no other time in her career, as she mentors a roster of 15 boys, only one of whom has ever played organized volleyball.
“Coaching has been easy for a long time,” said Pontes-Christian, who stepped in at the 11th hour when a coach couldn’t be found. “It’s going to be a test for me, but I’m going to give it my all for these guys.”
Unlike with her girls teams, which have players who’ve grown up playing the game, Pontes-Christian is coaching the basics to her guys.
The absolute basics.
“Some of the players don’t know all the rules of the game,” said Pontes-Christian, who also serves as club director for the Turlock Crush youth program. “They don’t have a volleyball I.Q. to rely on.”
With no junior varsity program yet, Pontes-Christian has assembled a roster that features eight underclassmen, which should provide some continuity next season.
Yes, Pontes-Christian is already thinking about 2024. She’s not giving up on this season, mind you, she’s just thinking about building a program — even toying with the idea of adding a boys program to the Turlock Crush.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Anybody who knows Pontes-Christian knows she doesn’t do anything half speed.
“Kristen is a fierce competitor,” said former Golden Valley girls volleyball coach Matt Thissen, who went head-to-head with Pontes-Christian when Pitman was a member of the Central California Conference. “For many years it seemed like the CCC title came down to us or Pitman. I really enjoyed our matches against each other.”
Thissen, now the athletic director at GV, coached the girls team for 22 seasons. He even coached against Pontes-Christian when she was a player at Turlock High.
“She has really taken that Pitman program and built it into one of the premier programs in our area. If you give her a little time with the boys, I wouldn’t expect anything less.”
Thissen, who stepped in to coach Golden Valley’s boys last season, points out that the boys’ game is vastly different from the girls’ game.
“The boys are more athletic, faster and stronger,” said Thissen. “After about three matches, we put our entire defensive scheme in the Dumpster and went with a more athletic defensive mindset. We brought the back row closer to the 10-foot line and let them use their hands and quickness and be more athletic. In very little time she’ll see that athleticism can make up for those deficits in volleyball I.Q. and technique.”
Junior Adam Quezada is the lone player on Pitman’s roster with volleyball experience. He played in a league in Ceres when he was in junior high. Other than that, the Pride’s résumé consists of a few pick-up games on the beach or in gym class. Basketball player Seth Vink is one of the few with experience in a varsity sport.
“This is my senior year and this is the first year boys volleyball will be played at our school,” said Vink, who believes basketball skills like jumping, lateral movement, and staying low, translate to his new sport. “So, why not be one off the first to play?”
Quezada, who has played varsity football and soccer, and participated in track and field, knows what’s expected of Pitman athletes.
“A lot of these players, with them not playing sports previously, it’s really hard to get accustomed to playing on a team, especially at a high level,” said Quezada. “So, it’s definitely one of my responsibilities to kind of show them where we all need to be as a team.”
Quezada is also familiar with his coach’s bona fides.
“She’s a very, very good coach,” said Quezada, who said he could sense the coach’s passion for the sport when he was in her sophomore English class. “I think she’s one of the most capable people that I’ve ever met when it comes to teaching and coaching.”
And what are Quezada’s expectations for this year’s team?
“I hope to win CCAL for the first time and be up there on that wall,” he said, pointing to where the school’s championship banners hang. “I want to be part of the start of something. I want to be a spark, and I hope to be part of a legacy.”
He’s got the right coach.