The Los Gatos High girls volleyball team knows exactly what it needs to improve on going forward.
The Wildcats enter the week at 3-2 with their two losses coming to perennial NorCal powers Mitty and Lowell of San Francisco. They have additional non-league matches against Sacred Heart Prep and Presentation before Santa Clara Valley Athletic League De Anza Division play kicks off on Sept. 11.
“We kind of stacked our preseason to see more teams that we’d [eventually] see in the postseason,” said Nicole Ciari, who is in her first season as the Los Gatos High coach. “So we’re really excited for our tougher schedule of matches and the team came in ready to go. The first match is versus Mitty which we’re excited for.”
Los Gatos is one of the more storied programs in the Central Coast Section but is coming off an atypical season in which they finished three games under .500 (11-14), third in league and lost in the opening round of the Division I playoffs.
This year’s team is intent on doing a reversal on all three fronts, including winning league, CCS and CIF NorCal titles.
“The girls have lofty, gigantic goals they’re ready to achieve,” Ciari said. “They realized on the first day of workouts they needed to be pushed and pushing hard the first couple of weeks in training will help them reach their goals.”
With 11 returning players including six seniors and a stellar junior class, Los Gatos could be in position to once again be among the elite programs in the section. The Wildcats will run a high tempo offense with returning setters in junior Maya Walker and senior Kate Vanderbosch.
“With Maya setting she just opens up so many options for us,” Ciari said. “But we do have depth. Kate has shown so much growth in the offseason and is really competing with Maya for those one and two top setter spots.”
Junior outside hitter Nicole Steiner has been an impact player since her freshman year and Ciari expects even bigger things from the 6-foot-1 talent.
“Nicole has been on varsity since her freshman year and now we’re pushing her to reach her next level of potential,” Ciari said. “We’re going to be asking a lot of her, asking her to hit from the back row as well which means she’s playing [all] six rotations. She’s been working hard on her first contacts and that’s where she needs to grow the most and we’ve already seen progress there.”
Junior Mia Halsey pairs with Steiner as the team’s top pin hitters and will be counted upon to terminate the ball and be efficient on the attack.
“Mia has really transitioned out of the middle and this past club season she’s seen leaps and bounds of improvement at the pin,” Ciari said. “She wants to learn and is really working hard. Her and Nicole really push each other in practice, constantly competing with one another and that means there’s a lot of energy there as they push each other to get better.”
Senior Allison Black is a four-year varsity player and one of the more reliable and steady players in the area. A versatile talent who excels in every phase of the game, Black will play wherever the team needs her: at the pin, middle or passing in the back row.
“She’ll be filling holes wherever we’re lacking because she is that type of athlete you can put anywhere and she will excel,” Ciari said.
Just as important as her physical skills, Black brings the intangibles that every team needs in abundance to be successful.
“Allie and I were reminiscing the other day and what she used to be like as a freshman,” Ciari said. “She came in kind of nervous, not sure of what her role was on the team. Very typical freshman energy. Now, four years later she’s our positive energy provider. She works hard everyday at practice and gets it done no matter where she’s playing.”
Freshman Britt Melinauskas and junior Reilly Mendez are two newcomers who have left an impression with Ciari during summer workouts and the opening weeks of fall practice. Melinauskas wasn’t afraid to put her goals out there from the start.
“Even before she stepped in the gym, Britt let me know very early on her goal this season was to make varsity as a freshman,” Ciari said. “At first I was skeptical because a lot of people have lofty goals heading into high school tryouts. I was like, ‘OK, I appreciate the confidence you have in yourself.’ And she came in and hit it out of the park. And even now after making the team, she’s working hard. She’s a heavy hitter and digs the ball well.”
Mendez has earned praise for her ability to transition and make adjustments to improve when given instruction.
“Riley is still very new to volleyball and doesn’t play club in the offseason because of basketball,” Ciari said. “But even without having those extra touches, she’s just a natural athlete. And for us as coaches it’s wonderful because we can tell her to do something and her brain-body connection is so strong. She takes up space in the front row and she’ll be a menace with her block. And as we teach her more technical pieces of how to move, I can see her making some big contributions.”
Ciari has ample experience coaching high level volleyball and she said this team has already left an indelible impression.
“This group is so connected,” she said. “They’ve already done a handful of team-bonding activities and truly enjoy spending time with each other. I’ve never seen a group have this type of chemistry with no coaching intervention necessary. They’re naturally going to work hard for the person next to them because of their connection. So, we can get down to the nitty gritty of how they can grow as volleyball players and that will help us grow faster as a team than in previous years.”