After overcoming injury, Katherine Claybaugh points San Ramon Valley toward another title.
By CHACE BRYSON | Editor
Katherine Claybaugh makes things happen. Her competitive fire won’t let it be any other way.
It’s how the San Ramon Valley outside hitter managed to power a young and inexperienced Wolves team to the North Coast Section Division I title a year ago — despite being just a sophomore herself.
“She was just so clutch,” San Ramon Valley coach Brian Fujinaga said of his star hitter’s sophomore season. “There were times during NCS where our passing would just break down and we’d be forced to throw her a ball on the outside and she’d just put the ball away.”
She put more balls away than any other Bay Area player in 2013 — 646 kills in just 37 matches — and was honored as the MaxPreps.com National Sophomore of the Year.
“I had some big shoes to fill with (2012 standout) Emily Reder graduating,” Claybaugh said. “There was a lot of pressure for me to perform and be that big outside threat. I work well under pressure, so I really like to challenge myself. … I’m used to competition. I like it.”
And just when it seemed that competitive fire couldn’t be dimmed, it was nearly snuffed out entirely.
In the days following San Ramon Valley’s four-set loss to Palo Alto in the CIF Div. I Northern Regional playoffs last November, Claybaugh began feeling some pain in her foot. The pain grew increasingly more severe until it was difficult to walk normally and she told her mom it was time to go to a doctor.
It took several trips to doctors and specialists before she had an accurate diagnosis. Claybaugh had fractured the sesamoid bone in her foot.
“The rehab was really frustrating because they didn’t know how to fix it or make it better,” Claybaugh said. “I would go back to club practice and I’d try to play, and 10 minutes later it’s hurting and I want to cry. There were a couple moments where I thought my volleyball career was over.”
Claybaugh says she probably reached her lowest point with the injury in late January.
“The doc had told me that I probably wasn’t going to play volleyball again,” she said. “I was sitting in the back of our car, holding this stupid (orthotic) insert that he thought was going to help but didn’t, and I was basically like: ‘Well, I’m screwed. I’m not going to be able to play volleyball anymore. My life is over. How am I going to get into college?’
“I was so sad. But my dad kept saying ‘We’ll find a way.’”
And then Dan Claybaugh — a paint company executive who moved his wife and two daughters from New Jersey to Danville when Katherine was in second grade — actually did find a way.
“He does a little bit of research online and figures out that if you cut out a chunk of my insert, then my foot won’t flex up and it won’t irritate the tendon.”
A little more than a month later, Katherine returned to action. She felt back to full strength by mid-April when her Redrock Volleyball Club team competed at the Far Westerns in Reno. Two months after that she was helping the club team take bronze in the National Division of the USA Volleyball Junior National Championships in Minneapolis.
Fast forward another two months and Claybaugh is four days into her first week as an upperclassman. She’s bubbly, gregarious and eager to describe her passion for the sport she was almost forced to give up.
“I just love that feeling when you get a really big kill and everything feels so clean,” she said on a balmy early evening on the San Ramon Valley campus. “Your technique was perfect, the timing was on. It just feels so good. I’m just so competitive and I just love crushing the ball or getting a really big dig and being able to jump up and yell ‘Yes! Let’s go!’ It’s just so much fun.”
Claybaugh was yelling “Let’s go!” in San Ramon Valley gymnasiums long before she was sporting a Wolves jersey.
Her sister Lauren, a 2008 graduate, played two years of varsity for San Ramon Valley and provided the program with one of its biggest supporters.
“I would come watch San Ramon Valley play and there’d be this little girl at the top of the bleachers who would lead the cheers every single match,” said Fujinaga, who is now in his fourth year leading the varsity program. “Everybody would get into it and you’d hear this little voice with her hands cupped around her mouth, ‘Here we go, Wolves!’ stomp-stomp. That was actually Katherine.
“She’s been wanting to play varsity volleyball at SRV almost her entire life, it seems.”
Fujinaga didn’t recognize that little girl when she showed up to a San Ramon Valley volleyball camp a little more than four years later. Katherine attended the camp as an eighth grader and the Wolves coach grouped her with the other eighth graders.
“It took one day for us to realize that she should be playing with the other juniors and seniors at the camp,” Fujinaga said. “From there, we’ve been looking forward to having her in our program.”
Claybaugh started as a freshman on the 2012 team which won 31 matches and reached the NCS Div. I final before losing to California. Last year, she was voted a captain as a sophomore and led the team to 33 wins and the NCS crown.
In addition to her 600-plus kills, she added 358 digs and was named the East Bay Athletic League MVP.
“Not only does she hit the ball so hard, she’s also incredibly smart,” Fujinaka said. “She has such good vision on the court. If a team starts backing up thinking she’s going to hit the ball hard, she’ll just drop the ball in front of them. There’s a lot of people in this league who can hit the ball hard and get kills, but what makes her so effective as a hitter is that she has all the shots.”
There hasn’t been a repeat NCS champion in Div. I since Liberty rolled to three straight titles from 2003-2005. With only four players graduated from last year’s roster, the Wolves have as good a chance as any of the most recent Div. I champions.
Perhaps one of the biggest teams standing in their way will be crosstown-EBAL rival Monte Vista. The Mustangs are loaded with returning standouts and have also added talent in 6-foot-2 Alabama transfer, MacLaine Fields.
Claybaugh says she and her teammates are keeping their focus on themselves.
“I think it’s going to come down to mental focus,” she said. “I know we have the talent. We’re a mature team now. … I have a lot of confidence in this team. We will definitely have a target on our backs this year, and that will motivate us to keep pushing.”
But don’t rule out Claybaugh simply making it happen. She’s got a track record for such things.
SportStars Magazine: High School Sports Articles Online SportStars is your go-to source for the very best high school sports articles in California. Player and team profiles, game coverage, health and fitness tips and the largest Camps, Clinics & Combine resource for athletes. We're the story behind the stats.