The Div. II postseason has been a Redwood Empire affair the past decade. That reign may be ending.
By MATT SMITH | Contributor
When it comes to North Coast Section volleyball in the East Bay, the focus is always on Division I and Division III, and for good reason.
Teams like Bishop O’Dowd, Campolindo, Albany, Foothill, San Ramon Valley and California have represented the East Bay quite well in recent years.
In what can possibly be considered as sort of an abnormality, the teams in Contra Costa and Alameda Counties don’t seem to fare as well in Division II.
But that might be about to change.
Since 2005, only one East Bay team has won a Div. II title, and that was only because of a technicality, really. In 2010, O’Dowd was forced to move up from Div. III after three straight titles — and promptly won.
Other than that, none of the true Div. II East Bay teams have won a title since Carondelet in 2004.
But 2012 brings new hope for the region’s teams. Teams from the list of usual contenders have become stronger, and in the shadows lie a few upstarts who might surprise when the postseason begins on Nov. 7.
Las Lomas and Northgate each seem improved this season after both reaching the semifinals a year ago, while Carondelet is always in the mix. The latter was the No. 4 seed in the Div. II field a year ago, and is typically very battle-tested after playing in the East Bay Athletic League against top Div. I teams.
It was foreseeable that these three teams would be in the mix, but not many could’ve expected Newark Memorial getting an invitation to the Contenders Party.
The Cougars made the playoffs last season for the first time in a decade, doing so as the No. 10 seed, finishing with a 13-15 overall record and a 4-8 mark in the Mission Valley Athletic League — good enough for a mere fifth-place finish. However, this year’s installment of the Cougars is one to be reckoned with.
The Cougars will surely be a top eight seed, probably in the top 5-6, as they will have rolled up over 20 wins, and perhaps an MVAL title, heading into the post-season. They pretty much put a bow on the league crown by beating second-place Moreau Catholic on Oct. 23, to stay undefeated in league.
“We have a great group of hardworking athletic girls,” Newark Memorial coach Lindsay Simeone said. “Our offense is growing stronger every day and they work hard defensively as a team. Every girl is becoming a threat offensively, giving us options. Last year we got our first taste of NCS and the girls are eager to advance farther this year.”
After a fairly slow start that saw them go 3-4 after seven matches, the Cougars just got better, winning seven in a row, and 15 of 16.
“The girls’ confidence is growing stronger with each match, but they also know how hard they need to work to get better with the rest of the division,” Simeone said. “The confidence has helped the girls fight through the tough times and come up on top in tight situations.”
Balance is the key for the Cougars, and if they are going to make a deep postseason run, sophomore middle Carley Ward, outside hitters Ni’Yesha Brown and Bailey Gamez along with setter Brooke Hadfield and libero Marissa Angeja will be leading the way.
One can’t forget about the Northgate Broncos, though. The No. 3 seed last year might be the favorite this season for a number of reasons.
One of those reasons, perhaps the top reason, is Michelle Lawrence.
The Colorado State-bound outside hitter might possibly be the best player in the East Bay and is a force for any team to deal with. She is only getting stronger after starting the season battling illness.
“Michelle is a complete player, and I think one of the best in the Bay Area,” Northgate coach Dave Weiland said. “She is strong in any position on the court. Yes she has been sick and has not been able to be showcased more, but as the season progresses she will just get stronger and better. She understands the game and has a ton of volleyball I.Q. already. She will be an asset to Colorado State, whose coach wants her to be that outside hitter who plays all the way around.”
And Lawrence is a microcosm for the rest of the team. The Broncos may have been looked at as slow starters, but the schedule actually is set up to have them playing more matches as the season progresses.
They only played 13 matches through Oct. 9, but have since gone to the Nor Cal Invitational in Sacramento, the Nike Tournament of Champions in Phoenix and hosted their own tournament.
“We are contenders for running the table because we keep getting better every game,” Weiland said. “We are playing in the tournaments that give us the best advantage to learn and grow. The goal is not the wins and losses but on peaking at the right time. The team understands this and strives to complete the journey.”
And though Lawrence is such a great player, Weiland (just like Simeone) knows it will take balance. Fortunately for the Broncos coach, he has it.
“We not only have the best all-around player in the East Bay, but a team that has many standouts and weapons,” Weiland said. “This makes us dangerous.
“Also, our younger players are developing into the players needed. We just need to play within ourselves, play relaxed and play with confidence.”
Weiland knows that the team across town is also in the mix for Division II’s top seed. Las Lomas, coached by former longtime Northgate coach Jim Changaris, has Weiland on alert. He knows the Knights aren’t to be taken lightly.
“Las Lomas is a contender as well. They have a strong set of returners in all positions,” Weiland said. “They have tough servers and play well as a team. They can come at you from anywhere on the court and teams have to be ready for both a strong offense and defense from them.”
What Las Lomas has going for it, other than a very good overall record, is a very good group of seniors hungry to end the season strong after falling just short as juniors.
Led by senior middle Maddie Borch, setter Rachel Linden and hitters Rachel Nieto and Geneva Duffy, the Knights have the type of balance most teams envy.
Carondelet is a much trickier team to figure out. The Cougars are easily one of the top teams in Division II, but the schedule sometimes makes it hard to finish over .500 in one of the NCS-qualifying categories (overall, league or division record).
That is the problem that Carondelet is facing this year.
“The trick is getting in. If we get in, I think we will be ready to compete with other D-II schools,” Carondelet coach Jerry Mix said. “Playing in the EBAL gets any team ready for playoffs. Every match is a battle in our league. It’s tough having to battle night after night, but that is what makes us stronger through the year.”
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