Talk about a turnaround. The Stockdale volleyball team has given Southwest Yosemite League opponents a collective case of whiplash this season.
From the SWYL basement last year, the Mustangs have jumped to the top of the standings following an undefeated first-half to the league season. The giant leap was highlighted by a dramatic five-set victory over defending league champion Liberty last week that snapped the Patriots’ 19-game SWYL win streak.
That victory definitely turned some heads and placed a spotlight on the quick change of direction, something Maria Collatz cannot remember seeing in her 29 years as Mustangs’ coach.
“Off the top of my head, not this quickly,” said Collatz, whose team was 8-27 overall and 1-9 in SWYL play last year. “I think that left a bad taste in their mouth, and they were like ‘we’re going to change it.’ And trust me, I’m on campus and talk to my girls all year long about what are we going to do differently. (Last year) didn’t feel good. I constantly remind them, ‘hey, let’s make a change.’ So I’m in their heads all the time. Let’s get fired up about next year, let’s make a difference.”
This year’s squad has obviously made a commitment to do just that.
Heading into Thursday’s home game against Bakersfield High, Stockdale is 20-7 and 5-0. The Mustangs were a combined 3-17 in league play the last two years, losing their last eight matches and failing to win a game in the process with a team featuring many of this year’s top players.
Those players, including seniors Brooklyn Jackson, Kami Marion and Emelie Harper, juniors Ashley Nance, Kelcee Valdez, Toni Perier and Maddy Schonauer, and sophomores Morgan Cole and Grace Townson took their lumps as underclassmen, but now make up the core of a team looking to win its first league title since 2014.
“There is no doubt that last year was a huge growing year for a lot of these girls,” Collatz said. “I had a freshman play all the way around last year, and she’s now a totally different sophomore. I believe it’s probably because she played so much last year and got so much experience. And I had quite a few girls gain a lot of confidence in the offseason.”
Collatz believes the team’s transformation is the result of extended workouts during the spring.
“I just feel like all the offseason stuff has really paid off,” Collatz said. “It’s straight-up maturity. That’s one of the things. The team has just matured a lot since last year, because there’s not a lot of new faces. We only lost three seniors last year, so everybody is back again, it’s just that they matured a lot, they worked hard, and I don’t know, we just turned the corner.
“As soon as basketball was over, we could get into the gym, and just made two days every week, which in the past we got to do like three weeks or something. So it was a big commitment to be able to be there two days a week, all through the rest of the school year. We played more together, we worked on little flaws like working on their arm swings, and things you don’t have time to do during high school season when you’re practicing and you have a game. So we worked on a lot of real technical things.”
The rewards for the extra work came sooner than expected. Collatz first realized her team had a chance to have a special season while watching a preseason scrimmage at Centennial that featured several of the top teams from the area playing in 20-minute matches. No score was kept, but Collatz could see her team’s improvement.
“The way I saw them play at the scrimmage, I was like ‘wow.’” Collatz said. “And we’ve changed the lineup six times since the scrimmage just trying to perfect it and make it even better. But I saw it in the scrimmage. I was like, ‘wow, this girl is more confident,’ and ‘wow, this girl is doing this better.’ There were so many aspects of our game this year that were better.”
With a rematch with Liberty looming next week, the Mustangs will look to continue their momentum against the Drillers on Thursday, in the first game of the second half of league play. The match is scheduled to start at 6:15 p.m.
“We’ll sit down at practice and talk about the first half is done and the second half gets harder because now everybody knows what everybody’s like,” Collatz said. “The girls and I are extremely happy with where we are right now. And we know that if we can continue to grow in the parts that we’re working on, being a group and individually bringing it together, that we can do great in the second half, also.”
Bakersfield (12-9, 1-4) presents the first obstacle, with a talented squad that features one of the area’s top players in senior Ava Palm. She leads the team in kills, digs, aces, serve receiving and is second in blocks. Palm also figures to get plenty of support from senior setter Juliette Blalock and sophomore middle Emma Larsen.
"So heading into Stockdale and starting league all over again, I really want to make them understand that we have to carry the Driller legacy over to their home and make sure we show up and we arrive and play well because in the second round is where things can really change,” said first-year BHS coach Edithza Urias. “Other teams can beat other teams and we just have to make sure that we do our part and hope the results go in our favor. We just really have to help ourselves out and go in there strong.”
The Drillers gave the Mustangs everything they could handle in their first meeting before Stockdale regained control in a 25-23, 19-25, 25-21, 25-18 victory in the SWYL opener three weeks ago.
“BHS is always good, so you have to be mentally prepared to play a great match,” Collatz said. “There’s certain things that we know about them because we’ve played them, things that we can possibly change. But of course I know they’re doing that on their end also. So I just expect a great, intense match. Another great SWYL match.”
That’s something Stockdale is making a habit of this season. But is Collatz surprised by her team’s strong play?
“I’m not really surprised, because I knew that it was in there,” she said. “It was just a matter of getting the girls to believe it. That’s the thing. Getting them to believe that you can be this type of a player and get them to buy in as a group.
“And I don’t really measure it in wins and losses, but if we do these things, we can be in the picture, we can compete with teams that are better than us. But these are the things that are going to have to happen. And so far we’ve done that.”