Outside of local volleyball circles, it’s likely few even noticed. But there has been a seismic shift in power in the Central Section, and Bakersfield area teams appear ready to shake things up.
And that’s saying something.
In the last 15 years, only three Bakersfield-area teams have captured a section championship in Division I, with programs from Clovis and Fresno dominating during that stretch.
But graduation has hit some of those powerhouse outfits hard, and if the first week of the season is any indication, local programs appear ready to pounce.
“I’m excited for Bakersfield as a whole because I think we now have the upper hand compared the Clovis teams, and that doesn’t normally happen,” said third-year Frontier coach Morgan Dake. “Last year they just had so many stacked teams, and they had a lot of people (graduate), and now I think there is more depth (of good teams in Bakersfield).”
An improved Centennial squad showcased that this week. The Golden Hawks, who finished 14-24 last year and 3-7 in the Southwest Yosemite League, defeated Clovis in five games. The Cougars, the 2014 champion, won 25 games and reached the D-I quarterfinals last year.
Bakersfield Christian, which returns six core players from last year’s D-II semifinalist squad, also made an impact with an impressive victory this week. Led by talented sophomore Ashley Herman’s team-high 12 kills, the Eagles swept D-I finalist and 2017 champion Fresno-Central on Tuesday.
“They’re a little bit down this year,” said BCHS coach Matt Touchstone of Central. “They lost 10 seniors and they have a new coach. They’re scrappy and thy aren’t too bad, but they’re definitely not as good as they’ve been in past years. They’re still a solid team.”
The Eagles figure to be one of the more talented teams in the area, with Herman joined by big hitters such as juniors Addie Schaefer and Alexandra Johnson, senior setter Lexi Reynish, and junior liberos Grace Kennelley and Gwyneth Bouma.
“This year is going to be an interesting year,” said Touchstone, whose team will also benefit from two transfers, Jaycie Demos (from Garces) and Mia Torigiani (Liberty). The two have to sit out the preseason, but are eligible to play on Sept. 20. “We have some talent and we have some younger kids who are playing some big roles for us.
“I really expect some really good things this year. We have a strong base. If we can get everyone up to speed, we can be pretty big and physical. So if we can just get two or three other girls into our system and then fill those roles, we can be incredibly good.”
Perhaps the best of a handful of local teams is Liberty, which returns several key pieces from last year’s defending SWYL championship squad.
“Every year is a new year and it’s a learning process,” said head coach Amy Parker, whose teams reached the D-I semifinals the past two seasons. “No matter how many returners you have, you always add new players to that, and so your goal at that point is you have to get that group to work together.
“You can have a lot of individual talent, but you have to be able to get those kids to work together. Every year it’s a new team, even if you add one or two people. And we’re in a situation where we added seven. So you have to get all the working parts to work together.”
The Patriots success starts with their defense — sparked by seniors Jaleesa Caroccio and Kaiah Sentes. Liberty is the last local team to win a D-I title, coming in Parker’s second season at helm in 2016.
“When they’re in together, that’s a tough road for your opponent, because they’re both super strong defensively, and they enable us to stay in a system,” said Parker, who guided her team to a sweep of two-time defending D-II champion Exeter on Tuesday. “If we get good balls to the setters, then the setter can set anyone of the three hitters. And the blocker on the other side of the net doesn’t have an advantage. They can’t cheat. Defensively, those two are huge for us.”
Junior Brynna Slayton, a second-team BVarsity All-Area setter last season, controls the offense for the Patriots, who have plenty of scoring options with juniors Paige Camarillo and Reese Renz on the sides and Bree Rodriguez holding down the middle.
“I think it’s anybody’s game,” Parker said. "You’re going to have your up years and your down years, but there’s teams that you can see the improvement. They play with a lot of emotion, and a lot of fire, and they are going to come after you. I think teams are going to step up and you’re going to see a lot of parity. And everybody’s going to battle every night.”
With the SWYL loaded with individual talent, including seniors Ava Palm from Bakersfield High and Stockdale setter Emelie Harper, Frontier might be geared to give the Patriots their biggest challenge in league play.
The Titans went just 2-8 in the SWYL last year, but they return almost its entire team, including junior setter Hailey Plugge, a Wichita State verbal commit.
“I have a lot of key pieces returning and a lot of senior leadership,” Dake said. “We’ve been talking a lot about just being consistent. A lot of times last year we would win a set and we would follow that set by losing pretty badly. Just staying consistent, serving and passing. Serving and serve-receive is always a big deal in high school volleyball.”
Mira Monte also figures to have another solid season.
On the heels of a Southeast Yosemite League title and run to the D-IV semifinals, coach Jenae Long continues to build momentum heading into her fourth season at the school.
“They know our system a little bit better,” Long said. “A lot of these kids have been playing with me for three years now. At first it was an adjustment trying to get to know a whole new system, and now they’ve kind of been doing it for three years.”
Senior Emily Rodriguez leads the way for the Lions. The 6-foot middle blocker, affectionately nicknamed “Slim,” had 22 kills in a five-set victory over West this week. Long also expects big things from junior Samara Bolanos, who played JV last season, as a replacement for her older sister, Angelina, who graduated last year.
“We lost three of our very strong, powerful players, so we had to replace and rebuild in that sense,” Long said. “We’re going to have a pretty awesome year again this year, we just have to get the chemistry together. They know how to play volleyball, they have the skill, now it’s just finding who is going to step up in those leadership roles.”