Walking into the Denair High gymnasium on Monday evening, community members may have mistakenly thought there was a rally happening. Or perhaps the school’s basketball team, who won three consecutive Southern Athletic League titles from 2019 to 2022 including a Section championship in 2022, started their season early.
In actuality, the girls varsity volleyball team was in action for a non-league matchup against Venture Academy of Stockton. Denair head coach Marie Stucker was admittedly surprised by the turnout. She was even more surprised to learn that the Coyotes were off to their best start in the program’s 22-year history.
After Monday’s 25-10, 25-12, 25-22 sweep of Venture Academy, the Coyotes improved to 9-5. Prior to this year, the best record they had through 14 matches was 8-6 in 2008 under head coach Steve Doerksen. That year, Denair posted a 15-10-1 record, one that has yet to be beaten.
“I wasn’t really paying attention to that, but that’s amazing,” Stucker said. “It’s exciting that we’ve kind of changed the course of the program and changed the culture here.”
Stucker is in her second year of coaching the Coyotes. Following a playing career that saw her compete collegiately at Stanislaus State in Turlock, Stucker took her first coaching job in 2006 for the Turlock Christian varsity squad. In her lone year at the helm, she led the Eagles to an appearance in the NorCal Section finals, where they lost to St. Francis of Watsonville.
Coming into 2023, the program has had a streak of 14 straight losing seasons. But Stucker isn’t used to losing. According to Stucker, the biggest change in the program has been the mentality.
“I think the girls got so used to having a losing mentality,” she said. “It really is such a mental game with them. Last year when we started winning some games, it was kind of a new concept. They realized, ‘Hey, we can do this.’ This year, I’m driving it home even more that they are not defined by their past. This year, it’s completely flipped. When we’ve lost this year, it was tough on them, which was good. They don’t like that feeling of losing anymore.”
The losses on the year have come against the likes of Pitman, Le Grand and Mariposa County, who have each had multiple playoff appearances over the past decade.
Stucker explained that she has seen exceptional leadership from the likes of senior captain Micaeli Warda, junior setter Macie Stucker, junior libero Abby Hernandez and senior Kaitlyn Perez.
“I can’t even pick just a couple players who are making an impact,” Stucker said. “They’re upperclassmen and have seen the tougher days, and they’re all in on winning now. This is just a really special group of girls. They know what they need to do, they know the positions they need to go to, and they know how to get the job done.”
While their overall record shows 9-5, the Le Grand and Mariposa County losses have dropped the Coyotes to 0-2 to start Southern Athletic League play. Despite the rough start out of the gates in league competition, Stucker isn’t worried.
“We just have to stay focused and stay intense. They’ve done such a great job this year at playing under pressure, which is helpful because it’s very hard to coach the mental aspect of this game. But I think when they have pressure put on them, they actually tend to do a bit better,” she said. “Our goal now is to go and really take it to the rest of the league. I think we’re going to surprise a lot of people.”
It’s a feeling that is contagious throughout the volleyball program and the school. Denair’s junior varsity squad currently has a 7-1 record to start their season. Additionally, the school of roughly 300 students has fielded their first-ever freshman team.
“We're really excited about the season and how well the players have done. Coach Stucker and her staff have done an amazing job with the program,” said Athletic Director Anthony Armas. “The student body and community are starting to rally around the team. It's really exciting and we couldn't be more proud of the team and the coaching staff.”
Following Monday’s match, Stucker applauded the student section, who started chants, banged on drums and danced throughout the evening. Stucker even told some that their enthusiasm and intensity was reciprocated by her team on the court.
“We haven’t had that in such a long time and it feels really good to give them something to cheer about,” Stucker said. “I’m just super excited. I love the community for coming out, and I hope we see more of them. I think we will.”