(Tina Pendleton, top left, Briana Campbell, top right, Lake Merchen, bottom right, and Britta Blaser are the girls volleyball coaches at Watsonville High, North Monterey County High, Aptos High and Monte Vista Christian, respectively. Photos by Tony Nunez/Register-Pajaronian)
It didn’t take long for new head coach Lake Merchen to break the ice with the Aptos High girls volleyball team.
A joke here, a wisecrack there and some self-deprecation for good measure.
“He’s really goofy and fun with us,” said Aptos sophomore libero/outside hitter Peyton Dueck. “He’s not super strict…he’s a really good coach.”
Added senior setter Chloe Manor: “He’s pretty levelheaded, but he’s also fun. There’s moments of humor that you can pick up on.”
Just a few months removed from wrapping up an impressive college volleyball career at UC Santa Cruz, Merchen has tried to keep a sense of levity during the first weeks of practice in hopes of making a smooth transition into his first high school head coaching job.
“That’s my goal,” Merchen said. “The more I break down the barrier, and get them to know that I’m here because I love volleyball, I really love coaching and teaching it, and I really love this team already over the first two weeks…That really allows us to grow more as a team.”
Merchen is one of five new volleyball coaches in the area who are trying to make a home at their respective program. Monte Vista Christian, St. Francis High, Watsonville High and North Monterey County High will also debut new leaders this fall.
Alumna Britta Blaser took over M.V.C. earlier this summer, while Guy Putnins and Tina Pendleton moved up from assistant to the head coach at St. Francis and Watsonville, respectively. N.M.C., meanwhile, welcomes in newcomer Briana Campbell.
The newly-formed Pacific Coast Athletic League also brought some changes for the area’s teams. Pajaro Valley High and N.M.C. will join M.V.C., St. Francis and Watsonville in the 33-school equity league this fall.
Aptos and Mt. Madonna, however, will still compete in the single-tiered Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League.
“There’s a lot of new coaches,” said longtime Pajaro Valley head coach Arlene Tsuji. “New league, new coaches. It’ll be interesting.”
Here’s a look at every team in the area:
With Merchen taking over for former coach Ashley Tennant and only four returning from last year’s co-SCCAL champion squad, the Mariners are expected to look very different.
Senior outside hitter Jillian Rodriguez leads the quartet of returning players, which also includes Dueck, Manor and senior defensive specialist/outside hitter Carolina Ogden.
An all-league first team selection each of the last two years, Rodriguez will enter her final high school season with a scholarship to Long Beach State’s beach volleyball program in her back pocket.
“There’s a lot of new people and we all just want to connect and see what we can do together,” said Rodriguez, who led the Mariners in kills (245) and aces (41) last fall.
Aptos has 10 new players on its roster of 14. All of them played at the junior varsity level last fall. Junior middle blockers Gabby Giuffre and Rylee Mennie will try to replace last year’s starting duo of Abbi Saxton and Braelynn Westjohn, while fellow juniors Brynn Mitchell, Natalia Ackerman and Alana Patyk-Randa will join seniors Alondra Tapia and Ogden in filling the void left by the graduation of Dani Hewitt, Lauren Picone, Sierra Martin and Dana Foley.
“There’s a lot of moving pieces — a lot to put together — but they are really hard workers, really fast learners,” Merchen said. “Over the last two weeks of practice we’ve gotten a ton better.”
Merchen has possibly learned more than any of his girls in the short amount of time. The lead sand volleyball coach for the Mountain View Volleyball Club, Merchen has primarily worked with older boys and younger girls over the last two years.
“It’s a little different communicating with this age group,” said Merchen, a native of Clovis who holds the UCSC volleyball records for kills, aces and digs. “Learning how to adapt my idea for the team and working it in with their idea of the team, and coming together to mesh the two ideas to make a good team, it’s been fun.”
Despite the changes, Aptos still has hopes of continuing its dominance over the SCCAL — the Mariners have won at least a share of the league title in each of the last five seasons. With Soquel High and Harbor High also losing some of their top contributors to graduation, and Mt. Madonna returning several players from a team that advanced to a CIF Northern California regional final, the league title race could be as close as it’s ever been.
“I want to win,” said Dueck, an all-league first team selection last year. “I want to win league.”
Coach Kiley Woods is gone, and so is half of the Mustangs’ 2016 squad that won a Central Coast Section championship and advanced to a NorCal final.
Along with the graduation of Kate Watts, Abbey Lynch and Mattea Romo, M.V.C. also lost the services of its top hitter, Cassidy Schurman, and one of its best defenders, Carson Gilroy.
The good news? Five members from the program’s magical season still remain, including third-year starters Christine Vea and Allie Tillery. Vea is the team’s captain and will play libero. Tillery is a 6-foot-4 junior middle blocker who will command attention from defenses.
Seniors Kailey Morrell and Malou Oostveen and junior Madie Vea also return for their third varsity seasons at M.V.C., which will ask sophomore outside hitter Aleah Rafat to take on a bigger role this fall.
That core will have to raise its game to another level if the Mustangs are to compete in the juggernaut PCAL Gabilan division, which will carry seven other playoff teams and one CCS champion (Santa Catalina).
Blaser is just six years removed from her days at M.V.C., where as a player she was twice named league M.V.P. and led the Mustangs to a league title during her senior year (2011-12).
Since then, Blaser graduated from Biola University in Southern California, starring for the Eagles on the volleyball court before serving as an assistant coach last fall.
After a somewhat disappointing league season, Mt. Madonna made the most of its postseason with deep runs in the CCS and NorCal playoffs. The Hawks played into late November, but ended their season bannerless, finishing runner-up at the section and regional level.
They had to say goodbye to four seniors, including starting setter Indigo Kelly and middle blocker Gracie Howley, but return senior outsider hitter Mara Peruzzi, junior outside hitter Paola Jacobs and junior libero AnMei Dashbach-Prisk from last year’s starting group.
Sophomore setter Savannah Cambell, who saw significant time as a freshman last year, is also back for Mt. Madonna, which will carry four freshmen this fall.
It wouldn’t be a shocker if Mitchell’s group is in the thick of the SCCAL title race deep into the season. Peruzzi and Jacobs’ offense, paired with Dashbach-Prisk’s defense, could be trouble for other SCCAL teams who underwent many changes since the end of the 2017 season.
Aforementioned Aptos lost nine seniors. Harbor, which earned a share of the league title last season, is without setter and SCCAL Most Outstanding Player, Pearl Biddle. And Soquel graduated league M.V.P. Maggie Walters and starting libero Chloe Kimes.
The Condors have not been in the league title hunt since 2007, a year in which they finished second in the now-defunct Monterey Bay League.
Campbell, a recent graduate of Cal State Monterey Bay, wants to change that.
“We can only go up from here,” said Campbell, a native of Lakeport and a Clear Lake High alumna.
The recent realignment will only help the Condors’ chances of a turnaround.
In the PCAL Cypress division, N.M.C. will see Anzar High, Gilroy High, Gonzales High, Soledad High, Stevenson, Pajaro Valley and Watsonville. Seven of the eight teams in the division finished with a losing record last season.
Campbell, who replaces former coach Alexis Mondragon, doesn’t see why her girls can’t compete in the new league.
“The chemistry is strong and that’s important,” she said. “All the girls get along and I think that’s going to take the team far.”
The Condors will carry 13 players. They have four seniors, eight juniors and one sophomore, Bekah Bueno. Senior setter/outside hitter Debora Guzman, who is in her third varsity season, has stepped into a vocal leadership role, as have juniors Sophia Cori and Ashley Silva.
“A lot of girls have taken on leadership responsibilities,” Campbell said.
Campbell was a two-sport athlete at Clear Lake, and her love for athletics carried over to her time at CSUMB. She played intramural volleyball and basketball while in college, and jumped at the opportunity to become a head coach when asked by N.M.C. assistant principal Kristy Tripp, her former advisor at Clear Lake.
“My passion for [volleyball] never died,” said Campbell, who credits longtime Clear Lake volleyball coach Marci Psalmonds for instilling that attachment to the game.
She said she hopes to be at N.M.C. for however long the school will have her.
“I want to prove to [the girls] that I’m invested in them,” Campbell said. “I’d like to be here for a long time…We’ll see how this season goes.”
Tsuji was wary of calling the Grizzlies’ placement in the PCAL Cypress division perfect.
“For what we did last season,” Tsuji said after a quick second to gather her thoughts, “I think we belong there.”
The Grizzlies last season finished 13-13 overall and 4-8 in MBL Pacific division action behind a senior class that included defensive specialist Natalia Gallegos, middle blocker Samantha Valdivia and setter Jaqui Lopez.
That trio is gone, but junior middle blocker Natalia Arroyo and junior outside hitters Julie Che and Isabella Langarcia return after solid seasons last fall. Seniors Kayla Salazar, Sofia Avalos and Maggie Gonzalez also return for Pajaro Valley, which will try to record its first winning season since 2009.
“They have a connection this year,” Tsuji said. “In the past, they were good players, but they didn’t have that intrinsic connection. This year they’re having fun.”
Whether that connection will lead to more wins is still to be determined. The new league has seemingly put the Grizzlies on a level playing field, but Tsuji said there are still many unknowns heading into the season.
“It’s hard for me to know until we actually play them,” Tsuji said. “I think it’s fair, but there’s been a lot of changes.”
A year after notching the program’s first playoff win since 2009, St. Francis is starting from scratch. The Sharks not only graduated nine from a roster of 12, but also lost head coach Greg Ryan in the process.
Putnins, Ryan’s assistant and the head coach of the junior varsity last fall, is now in charge of a group that is spearheaded by senior outsider hitter Janessa Yniguez, senior middle blocker Tanya Gallo and senior libero Kathleen Tripp.
“They will be my go-to people this year,” Putnins said.
St. Francis High also welcomed in a new head coach in Guy Putnins. Photo by Johanna Miller/Register-Pajaronian
The Sharks will also carry three juniors, one sophomore and a trio of freshmen.
They will have their work cut out for them in the PCAL Mission division, the second toughest division in the new league. They’ll face the likes of Alisal High, Alvarez High, Monterey High, North Salinas High, Pacific Grove High and Seaside High.
“There are some awesome teams in that league that have had some great history,” Putnins said. “I think we’ll be competitive with our seniors leading us.”
Putnins grew up in Southern California and was a star at Corona Del Mar High in Newport Beach, leading the team to a state title in 1985 and earning all-state honors. He went on to play college volleyball at Long Beach State, and moved to Santa Cruz soon after.
Now, he hopes to build St. Francis, which added a frosh-soph team this fall, into a yearly contender.
“It’s a dream come true for me to take over a varsity program,” Putnins said.
When asked by athletic director Mark Northcutt to take over the program earlier in the year, Pendleton, an assistant last season, was hesitant at first.
Things have changed.
“I’m all in,” said Pendleton, who moved from Santa Cruz to Watsonville to be closer to the school. “I want to the build this program. I want to change the expectations around here, and I think the girls want to do that, too.”
The Wildcatz, powered by a strong senior class of six, have their sights set on ending a CCS playoff drought that dates back to 2010. Like N.M.C. and Pajaro Valley, they’ll compete in the PCAL Cypress division.
Outside hitter Naomi Benitez (Sr.), setter Jasmine Jimenez-Saucedo (Sr.), opposite Camila Cardenas (Jr.) and defensive specialist Samantha Castro (So.) all return from last year’s squad, which finished 8-15 overall and placed fifth in the MBL Pacific division with a 4-8 league record.
Benitez and Cardenas, who Pendleton said “dents” the hardwood, will be captains for the new coach, who takes over for former coach Tom Schatz.
“The girls are tired of losing,” said Pendleton, who led the middle school team at Mt. Madonna to a league title and also coaches club volleyball for Faultine Volleyball. “They want to make CCS this year. That’s their goal. I let them set the goals. If they make CCS it is going to be all them. I’ll set the drills and they’ll have to work hard.”