Pitman High is looking for its ninth conference title under coach Kristen Pontes-Christian. Standing in the way: the Turlock Bulldogs.
Turlock High, meanwhile, is looking for its fourth (non-COVID) title under head coach Amber Lugo. Standing in the way: the Pitman Pride.
It’s exactly what you want from a rivalry. Pitman enters the match 4-0 in the Central California Athletic League. Turlock owns a 3-1 mark – the only blemish a 25-18, 20-25, 25-17, 25-15 setback to the Pride on Sept. 26.
With one CCAL game left for each team against league bottom-feeders, it’s a virtual lock that tonight’s match will determine whether Pitman is the outright champion or if Turlock can salvage a co-title.
Action is slated to get under way at 6 p.m. at the Pitman gymnasium.
“I love the rivalry and always enjoy the Turlock-Pitman matches,” said Pontes-Christian. “Both sides have huge crowds, student sections and we typically have our band. It’s such a fun and intense match and I love when we have comparable talent levels so it’s a very competitive match.”
Turlock coach Amber Lugo agrees.
“I love the environment that this rivalry gives the girls,” said Lugo. “It’s the only time a lot of these girls will ever play in these conditions. You hope that you get them prepared for that type of high pressure. But you can’t really prepare. It’s not a normal thing. There’s no denying the rivalry.”
Pontes-Christian has one of her youngest teams this year, and at 26-2 overall, that’s bad news for the rest of the Sac-Joaquin Section. The Pride is coming off a championship run this past weekend at the Stockton Varsity Volleyball Classic, with wins against Vacaville, Rio Americano (Sacramento), Exeter, James Logan (Union City) and Enochs.
“Being young this season truly does help us because our younger and more inexperienced players are learning and growing at a very rapid rate,” said Pontes-Christian. “I also believe that all players, freshman through seniors, have handled the pressure of being part of this program very well.”
The “program” has not only won eight league titles under Pontes-Christian, but also three Sac-Joaquin Section championships and a Northern California title. The Pride are ranked third overall in the Sac-Joaquin Section, behind only No. 1 Whitney (Rocklin) and No. 2 Oak Ridge (El Dorado Hills), the reigning D-I champs.
“As I’ve told every varsity team for the past eight seasons, ‘Pitman volleyball has had, and will continue to have, a target on our backs because of our past and continued success,” said Pontes-Christian. “Every team, especially in our area, always wants to beat us and they typically play their best against us.”
Turlock (16-10) is no different. The Bulldogs lived in the Pitman’s shadow during the Pride’s championship run (2014-16), but broke into the sunlight the following year when they brought home the program’s first section title. That made Turlock one of three cities (Stockton and Grass Valley are the others) in the history of Division I volleyball to claim four or more consecutive titles.
“Everybody has to show up and play like we do every day in practice,” said Lugo. “We’re good at swinging and going all out and sometimes when we get a little too technical, we get timid.”
Pontes-Christian wants the Pride to focus on the task at hand.
“When we play Turlock there are always a lot of distractions,” said Pontes-Christian. “To finish undefeated, we need to continue to play as one, instead of playing as six talented individuals.”