It's hard to repeat as champions in any sport but the Pitman High varsity volleyball team knows a thing or two about winning. The Pride were back-to-back Section champions and the team looks just as poised and ready to repeat this year.
Easier said than done for the Pride who will have a target on their backs, having won five consecutive Central California Conference titles. Crosstown and conference rivals Turlock will also give the Pride a run for their money this season.
“It's a new season and I want to keep these girls working hard and have tough practices and play every game like it's the Section final and that is our mindset,” said Pitman head coach Kristen Pontes-Christian. “Because we don't know what to expect in any game.”
If that doesn't look as intriguing, the upcoming year will also be the first time that El Capitan is included in the CCC—a team the Pride are not too familiar with.
“Besides us and Turlock, every team has a new coach so we don't know what to expect but it should be fun,” said Pontes-Christian. “No matter who the opponent is, whether they are weaker or stronger, in league we will come in expecting to face the team who is going to play the best game they ever have.”
Over the last five years Pitman has definitely progressed as program, including winning consecutive CCC titles, two straight Section titles and a Nor-Cal title in 2014. That year the team won their first Sac-Joaquin Section banner with a 44-2 record and finished with a state ranking of 18.
They followed up their best year in history with a good run last fall that included an upset win over No. 1 Oak Grove in the semifinal of the Section tournament and a year that many didn't anticipate.
“Last year was one of those years where we came off the best year we ever had and everyone thought we lost so many seniors and we were expected to not do well in playoffs but we all worked hard,” said Pontes-Christian. “It was an interesting season for us and it was unexpected but we all knew it was possible and it could happen.”
As a team, Pitman compiled a 30-7 overall record for the season and made it to the Nor-Cal quarterfinal round along with capturing their second blue banner.
From that team, the squad returns eight seniors into this year's roster that is anchored by Yisel Perez, Marlowe Embry, Erika Rodriguez, Denae Finney, Kiyanna Torres, Hailee Derr and Angel Nguyen.
“I don't think it's much different from last year although we did lose four seniors but we still have eight seniors and I feel having these seniors should help,” said Rodriguez. “We know each other on the court and I think we can do great things this year.”
The juniors returning will be standout Kaylin Randhawa, Fallon Evans and Whitney Barnes, although Barnes recently sustained an injury and is recovering from surgery.
“I had previously hurt my shin and went to get surgery and it was an infection and bone growth, so I was out for a bit but this week I will get checked to see if I am ready to play for this season,” said Barnes who was second in kills just a year ago. “So we will wait and see.”
Barnes tallied 234 kills in 71 sets played and Perez was first with 248 in 80 sets played. Barnes was first with kills per set at 3.3.
“Worst case scenario is I might miss another month after the procedure, maybe half of the season,” said Barnes. “I think not being there we can still compete and win CCC, without me they can do it, I feel I can help out, but they can hold their own.”
The team will also have the likes of Randhawa, who comes off her best offseason according to Pontes-Christian.
Randhawa finished first on the team in blocks in 2015 with 158. The second best on the team was 81.
The squad will also have Embry and setter Torres returning, both of whom who were big assets to the Pride's success last year.
Torres was first on the team with 722 assists and added 120 digs. Embry was second on the team in digs with 166 and was third in serving aces with 20.
“Our passing is good and our hitting is good, we just have to stay consistent and play hard,” said Rodriguez. “Our coach always teaches us to never be overconfident but always be confident. I feel we play as a whole and not as individuals and that should help us get further into the year and postseason.”
The team also welcomes former Pride volleyball player Ashley Solis who will work as the team's assistant.
“Hopefully, we contend for league and for a postseason title run,” said Pontes-Christian. “...We need to be consistent, because consistency is key in volleyball.
Pitman's first official contest of the year will be at home against Ripon in a scrimmage game at 4 p.m. Aug. 23.