Two four-year starters, best friends with 800 kills between them, bring Deer Valley another NCS title
By CHACE BRYSON | Editor
Jordan Ewert and Jared Stark are close to inseparable.
The Deer Valley High boys volleyball duo have known each other since kindergarten, and been members of the Wolverines’ varsity program since they were freshmen.
But on the eve of the North Coast Section Division I Championship, which Deer Valley is attempting to defend for a second time, the Wolverines were practicing without Ewert’s best friend who was home with a 102-degree fever. Nobody knows whether Stark, the team’s second-leading hitter, will even be able to attend the final the following night against De La Salle-Concord.
But Ewert — one of the best high school boys volleyball players in the country and a starter for the the USA Youth National Team — knows where he’d probably be were it not for Stark.
On a soccer field somewhere.
“I came to a Deer Valley (volleyball) camp in sixth grade and absolutely hated it,” Ewert said. “I was a soccer guy. I played 12 years. I was going to play soccer in high school; I was going to play soccer in college, Olympics; I was all about soccer.”
That changed in junior high when Stark convinced his buddy to come play in a volleyball tournament in Sacramento. Ewert had just finished a soccer tournament there and thought “what the heck.”
“My mom played in college at Berkeley and my older sister played (for Deer Valley),” Ewert said. “Volleyball has always been in my life. But I never considered it until I got a call from my best friend, who I now play with.”
Stark proved healthy enough to play in the NCS championship the following night. Understandably a bit sluggish, he contributed a modest seven kills. Ewert blistered De La Salle for 32 kills. The Wolverines rolled to a four-set victory, 25-18, 22-25, 25-20 and 25-16. In doing so, Deer Valley became the first NCS Division I program to win three straight championships since De La Salle strung five together from 1998-2002.
For all the success that Ewert and Stark and have helped bring to the program, a California Interscholastic Federation Northern Regional Championship has eluded them each of the past two seasons. In 2013, the Wolverines lost in the Div. I NorCal final to Archbishop Mitty-San Jose. And last season, they were knocked out in the semifinals by St. Francis-Mountain View.
“Not gonna lie, we went in expecting to win that first one,” Ewert said of the 2013 NorCal final. “I think we went into that with our heads a little too big, and then last year I think we went in a little too scared.”
This year, the outlook is much different. Ewert, Stark and three-year starting middle Jacob Brannon lead an experienced core that fuels an expectation of winning.
“There’s a real truth to success breeding success,” longtime Deer Valley coach Lou Panzella said. “At the end of games, when the score is close, these guys EXPECT someone to do something. To make a block. To get a kill or serve an ace. Teams who are not successful are more like, ‘Who is going to screw up.?’ It’s not something you can teach. It’s something that happens as it happens in the natural flow of games.”
Many times its Ewert who steps up and makes those plays. His 32 kills in the NCS title match pushed his season total to 561. His hitting percentage is 53.9 percent, meaning his kill attempts go for points slightly more than half the time. He also had contributed 86 assists, 248 digs and 416 pass-receives out of 430 chances.
The program’s recent success has seen some wildly successful players, including Jason Agopian (a first-team all-conference middle blocker for UC Irvine), Derrico Kwa (Deer Valley’s all-time aces and assists leader now playing for UC Santa Barbara) and Marcus Lee (who was a dominant middle blocker as a side hobby to basketball, where he was a McDonald’s All-American and now plays at Kentucky).
What Ewert has accomplished already puts him on par with those players, if not above them.
“It’s like asking me to rank my kids, which child I like best,” Panzella said. “But the college coaches have said something about that. He’s the only boys player I’ve ever had who has gotten a full scholarship for volleyball. … I can’t think of anyone who is better than him. How’s that?”
But what may set Ewert apart, and potentially lead them to being the last of eight Division I NorCal teams still standing when the tournament ends on May 30, is his sense of humility. His lasting friendship with Stark, the team’s other captain, has created a strong chemistry that drives the team forward.
“Playing with Jordan is really fun,” Brannon said. “He’s really competitive and really good. He can be really supportive too. And Jared is the guy who brings everyone together. The one who’s always positive.”
Together they’ve helped forge a group that Panzella finds unique. “They just kind of play,” he said.
“(Earlier in the playoffs) we were up something like 23-7 in the fourth set,” Panzella went on. “There was a dig that was shanked and three guys chased the ball to the wall and somebody dove. That would’ve been an easy play for someone to say, ‘Ah, we don’t need this point.’ But they have that philosophy that we play every point until it’s done. … So coaching this group has been pretty easy.”
And make no mistake, the team has fun doing it. It’s that which will drive them over the last week of May, if they’re to reach their NorCal title goal.
“We’ve played with each other so long, we don’t want it to end,” Ewert said. “We don’t want to win because we want the medal, we want to win because who wants to stop playing with their best friends?”
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