Expectations were as high as they ever were for the Pitman Pride varsity volleyball team just a year ago.
The team was returning two future Division-I college signees, who were also vital assets for the Pride in their three-year reign as Sac-Joaquin Section Division-I champs, and their upcoming juniors were set to take on light duties on an already talented squad.
A plethora of injuries hit the team that included those two D-I collegiate athletes (Whitney Barnes and Kaylin Randhawa) being out for most if not the entire season, including some of the juniors who were expected to play most of the sets alongside them.
This put the younger and varsity inexperienced players in an uncomfortable situation. It all led to a rollercoaster of sets played, but they learned and are hoping to push forward with their growing pains they saw last year.
“We have grown together, and we have a lot of talent we just need to get the on-court chemistry down and work hard,” said Pitman’s Emma Hirschkorn. “Last year injuries hurt us and because of that we had to get players in positions we were not comfortable with and that was on the fly and threw off the chemistry and as one would go in another player got hurt so we had to learn on the go.”
“Last year towards the end, our goal was to have everyone back next year with the growth and improving, and everyone really did,” said Pitman head coach Kristen Pontes-Christian. “Everyone that made the team has grown at some capacity, just being smarter players as well. Last year we had talent but were not always the smartest on the court, and volleyball is such a mental game and it’s something we are excited about.”
Last season was the first time in a three-year run that the Pitman Pride varsity volleyball team had not reached the Sac-Joaquin Section Division-I final.
They achieved a peak that no other prior team in the town of Turlock had achieved—until last year when Turlock High won its first ever Sac-Joaquin Section Division-I title, keeping the bragging rights in town.
However, this is a new year, and the Pitman Pride are hungry to pick up where they left off in the fall of 2016. They ended 2017 with a sour taste in their mouths and they feel they have learned and moved past that.
They head into their first full season in the newly created Central California Athletic League with high hopes and the anticipation to capture the first ever CCAL crown.
“I am expecting us to do pretty well and it should be a good year for us since we are going into the new league,” said Pitman’s Emily Vander Weide. “We are trying to win CCAL, have to get used to that name, but we are trying to win that and move on to playoffs and hopefully get a good seed and make a section title run again… maybe.”
It will take a plethora of talent — talent that Pontes-Christian has been gifted with over the past seven seasons, along with her ability to combine it all together that has resulted in three straight SJS D-I crowns.
In 2014, Pontes-Christina led her squad to a Nor-Cal State Champions and finished as runners-up in the state that year falling to Redondo Union in the state title game.
“I think we will get back to where we have been before, it will obviously take some work, on-court chemistry building and working together,” said Hirschkorn. “We need to work on communication and work the court better because last year the juniors were a bit intimidated by the seniors, but once we get the trust built up I think we will be really good this year.”
Despite not winning the section title in 2017, the Pride still managed to accumulate a winning record, going 17-16 overall, while placing third in the CCC at 8-4 in their final season.
Pitman also left their mark in the Central California Conference winning the CCC title from 2011-2016. During that span they only lost four times in a six-year frame in league contests.
The seven returners for the Pride this year are Cierra Verdone, Avery Carlson, Madi King, Madison Wood, Haley Freeman, Vander Weide and Hirschkorn. Wood and Freeman are the returning sophomores who were on the roster as freshmen a year ago.
“We have seven returners, five new, but last year was unfortunate with as many injuries as we had and overall record was not where we wanted it to be,” said Pontes-Christian. “But moving forward we have a good senior class, good core group that we have already talked to with leading and being role models for the younger girls and they gelled well together and worked hard in the offseason and we are hoping to capitalize on that with them.”
The first official game for Pitman will be at home against Tracy at 6 p.m. Aug. 21.
They will also scrimmage Hilmar on the road at 9 p.m. Aug. 11.
“The main thing this year is team chemistry and we spoke about that after tryouts and hopefully that will lead to success for the year,” Pontes-Christian added. “It’s really the first year where we don’t know the players from league and don't know much about them unless we played in preseason or playoffs, but it will be fun. I think we are all ready for a change, especially coming off last year it not going necessarily our way. We are excited and hope to bring competition, and every one of our girls played club this past year and that always makes a big difference.”