The Watsonville Starlings recently won the San Diego National Championship Tournament, which is a three-day tournament in June featuring dozens of other Starlings teams from around California.
Watsonville defeated a 14-U team from Tijuana, Mexico. But it’s not the first time the program has seen some success.
Rico Dominguez, 43, founded the league program 15 years ago to offer competitive, junior olympic volleyball to young girls in the community of Watsonville.
“It’s giving them a way to play volleyball where you’re not focusing on competition, you’re just focusing on playing a sport,” he said.
Dominguez said one of the goals is to introduce volleyball in a fun and engaging way to help encourage athletes and develop their confidence as well as their skills at the sport.
Dominguez, who is originally from San Jose, came to Pajaro Valley High in 2006 to coach the girls’ volleyball team. He said at the time there wasn’t a true volleyball camp available to the kids.
“There were no nonprofit, low-income programs and a lot of them are just high-end programs,” he said.
Dominguez said he got in contact with the Starlings Volleyball USA program, which is based out of Southern California.
The program was established in 1996 with a single inner-city San Diego team. Starlings has grown to become the nation's largest junior volleyball club by serving more than 2,500 girls in more than 50 clubs.
According to the Starlings website, the dues, if any, are a fraction of most junior club costs, with the goal that no girl is turned away because of inability to pay.
The cost to join the competitive team is $760, which Dominguez said is far less expensive than what some of the other volleyball camps would charge.
“It’s just giving them an opportunity to play at a cost that they can afford,” Dominguez said.
Dominguez also offers a StarKIDZ volleyball camps that runs for six Saturdays in the spring, summer, fall and winter. The cost for the entirety of the camp is $50 or $10 per individual sessions.
The StarKIDZ program is for boys and girls at the beginner level but also organized in a way to support athletes of all levels and ages.
This program is unique to Watsonville Starlings and is appropriate for intermediate along with advanced players as well.
Dominguez also has former and current players come help him on Saturdays, including a group of players from the 14U team that played in the national championship.
Rico Dominguez founded the Watsonville Starlings chapter 15 years ago to introduce volleyball in a fun and engaging way to help encourage athletes and develop their confidence as well as their skills at the sport. (Juan Reyes — The Pajaronian)
Zoey Ocampo, 14, said the tournament was a great experience and volleyball has become fun for her over the years.
“As we got older it became more commitment and more practices, so it became fun, plus the competition,” she said. “It always fueled our need to want to keep playing.”
The first ever Starlings team was a group of 16s, which started with 12 girls that competed in their first tournament at the Presidents Day Tournament in San Jose. The team started off as the No. 154 seed and finished in the same spot.
The second season saw more accomplishment. All of the Starlings teams were finishing at the top in most of their tournaments.
The Starlings 16-1 team finished in the top-five of all eight tournaments it played that season and finished first place in two of them.
In San Diego, the 14s team played in the Division 5 pool and placed first, while the 16-2 team played in the 16s Copper Division 4 pool and finished in second place.
They were also ranked 20th out of 47 teams and earned Watsonville’s first medal.
The 16-1 team played in the 16's Gold Division 1 pool and finished fourth place out of all 47 teams in their age group in 2008.
A majority of the players from those teams also went on to play for Pajaro Valley High and captured a Monterey Bay League title during the 2009-10 season.
Dominguez said he saw plenty of younger girls playing for volleyball clubs. But his main goal is to prepare them for high school because a lot of times they don’t get the chance to play at the prep level.
Dominguez’s father, who passed away in 2008, was a major influence in his life when it came to sports. It’s the main reason why he loves volleyball so much.
Dominguez said he remembers the work ethic and commitment his dad had, including waking up at 6 a.m. and driving Dominguez as a kid to tournaments.
“My dad, he’s the one that got me into all this stuff,” Dominguez said.
Yesenia Melgoza-Fernandez was a former Watsonville Starlings player and is coming back to help take over the program this season. (Juan Reyes — The Pajaronian)
Dominguez plans to leave the Watsonville chapter to begin a new one in Santa Cruz sometime in the near future. But he’s confident enough that he’ll be leaving the Watsonville chapter in some good hands.
Yesenia Melgoza-Fernandez, 24, was a former Starlings player under Dominguez. She’s coming back to help take over the program and said she’s doing it for the community.
“The four years that I spent here was some of the best times of my life, especially being so young,” Melgoza-Fernandez said. “It really gave me a lot of confidence to take on whatever it was in the future and I want to give back.”
Melgoza-Fernandez said she feels like it’s her responsibility as a community member to support the young athletes in whatever it is they want to do.
“It’s amazing seeing how a lot of these girls have such huge goals for themselves and just being able to be part of that and helping them harbor it,” she said.
Melgoza-Fernandez was a 14-year old freshman in high school when she joined the Starlings. She said the reason for signing up was because of her best friend, who kind of forced her to join.
“After I did it I loved it,” she said. “I wasn’t very good at all when I started and Rico (Dominguez) can tell you I was one of the ones where he was, ‘I don’t know if she’s going to continue.’”
But Melgoza-Fernandez said Dominguez had so much confidence and belief in her and the entire team. She said she kept pushing herself and slowly went from being on the practice team to captain of the 18s team during her senior year at Pajaro Valley High.
“If someone like Rico can do that for me I can only imagine how much I can do for these girls, too,” she said.