In the southernmost region of Kern County, there is a hidden gem tucked away in the San Emigdio Mountain range.
It can be found a short distance from Interstate 5, along a winding two-lane road that leads to Frazier Mountain High School, home to one of the top small-school volleyball programs in the Central Section.
The Falcons have won 18 league titles and three section championships in the past 24 years, all against much larger competition. And they are at it again this season, compiling a 23-4 overall record, including a 4-0 start in the High Desert League.
“Kids want to play for a successful program,” said Frazier Mountain coach Sharon Lemburg, who has been with the program in some capacity since its inception 25 years ago. “So that’s all part of it. And I coach the kids really hard. I set my goals high, and they kind of cling to my goals, and they start believing it and saying ‘if Coach Lemburg says we can do it, then I guess we can do it, and we better.’"
The Falcons showcased their talents earlier this month when they swept through Mira Monte, Wasco, Independence, North, Tulare Union and Garces to capture the Highland tournament championship.
The title did not come without its challenges. Challenges that are unique to a school with an enrollment between 250 and 270 students. At times, Lemburg has had to remind her team that just because they are a smaller squad, they can still be competitive when facing larger schools.
In the tournament final, the Falcons trailed Garces by 10 points in the opening set. Lemburg called a timeout.
“I told them you guys are all hyped up and worried about playing Garces, like they’re supposed to be better than you,” Lemburg said. “They haven’t proven that they’re better than you so go out there and don’t think about who you’re playing, think about how you’re playing."
Frazier Mountain responded with a 27-26, 25-15 victory.
The Falcons are led by junior twins Sarah and Emily Hon. The two have combined for more than six kills per set and are each hitting at better than a 61-percent clip. Senior captain Ryann Bodman and junior Kelsey Zuniga lead the team in digs, and juniors Betsy Olvera and McKenzie Polhert have shared setting duties.
“I think we work harder and we have higher expectations,” said Lemburg, who has between 30 and 35 girls tryout for the team each year. “We don’t play according to the team we are playing against, our goal is to play our game, and to play the best that we can. It doesn’t matter who we’re playing, we play the best we can. And when the kids get into the game, I think that helps them to play better.”
The key to the program’s success has been the development of a feeder program at the elementary and junior high school levels, coached by former Stockdale girls basketball coach Charles Stewart.
Stewart, who lives across the street from Stockdale, has been making the 35-minute commute to El Tejon School the past 21 years, and his knowledge, energy and coaching has been key to the Frazier Mountain’s success.
“A lot of schools don’t start until the sixth or seventh grade and we’re starting in fifth grade level,” said Stewart, who tries to train his players to a higher level of volleyball at a younger age. “We get a large percentage of the girls in the school participating in the program. We typically have 20 to 25 total girls in entire grade level, and usually we get at least half of those kids playing volleyball.”
Stewart coaches a fifth, seventh and eight-grade team, and also helps organize two Frazier Mountain youth tournaments and another at Stockdale to help give his teams the necessary exposure to high-end talent in Bakersfield.
“In general, most schools play one-hit volleyball in fifth and sixth grade, and sometimes seventh grade,” Stewart said. “But we take our lumps by making them play three-hit volleyball on the teams I coach. So we don’t do as well as far as team success, because it’s more important for us that they learn to play three-hit volleyball, then to take the shortcut of just playing one hit and get the ball over the net. If we did that, we would definitely have more wins, but we’re trying to teach them to play the proper way at a younger age.”
There’s no arguing with the results.
“We teach them fundamentals, and I do have a certain playing style that I developed maybe 16 years ago,” Lemburg said. “I don’t really want to share it with anybody, but it’s a different formation than anyone else uses, and it works.”