With talent, experience and brewing confidence, Liberty aims for a return to glory
By CHACE BRYSON | Editor
It’s 3:45 p.m. on an early September afternoon. Inside the main gymnasium on the Liberty High campus in Brentwood, the varsity volleyball team has its music at a high volume as it goes through its dynamic warmups and drill work.
Meanwhile, Linda Ghilarducci, the coach in her 33rd year leading the well-respected Lions program, is having issues with her cell phone. Any incoming calls are going straight to voicemail and there’s no record of any missed calls or voice mails being left.
“I’m sure one of these kids can figure it out,” she mused in frustration.
However, when it comes to her 2015 roster, there’s little to be vexed about.
In Ghilarducci’s first 32 years with the program, she’s led the Lions to the North Coast Section playoffs in all but two seasons. The brightest period of success undoubtedly came from 2003-2005 when Liberty reeled off three NCS Division I titles and reached the CIF Div. I State Championship match in 2005.
Now 10 years removed from that state finals team, Ghilarducci sees a handful of similarities between that NorCal-champion roster and the one she’s watching practice.
“They have a winning attitude,” Ghilarducci said as she surveys the 12 players on the floor. “It’s a collective mindset that the coach can’t always coach. It comes from within. … That state team of mine had the same mindset.”
It also had a bevy of talent, including All-American Allison Cecchini who would play for the University of Florida, and Kelley Quinn who had a four-year career at UC Riverside. There’s plenty of talent on the 2015 Lions as well, as four of the five seniors are expected to play at the next level. And to bring everything full circle, Cecchini has returned to the program as Ghilarducci’s assistant.
Of Liberty’s core group of seniors, two — setter Kaitlynn Zdroik and outside hitter Taylor Dixon — are in their fourth year of varsity. Two more, Hannah Richardson and Ashley Dixon (Taylor’s twin sister), are beginning their third year on the team. The fifth senior, Katie Klisiwicz, was off to a promising start as a junior but has been hampered by a right foot injury.
Mix in seven underclassmen, two of which also return from a 24-15 team a year ago, and it’s easy to see why Ghilarducci has a good feeling about the group.
“It’s a really strong group of girls,” said Zdroik, who as the setter and a four-year player appears to be at the heart of the team’s leadership. She began a team whiteboard this season that the group adds motivational memos to and addresses before practice each day.
“One of our favorite sayings on our board right now is ‘The will to win is important, but the will to prepare is vital,’” Zdroik said. “I have a saying above my bed at home that says ‘What is she doing today?’ So we talk about ‘What are THEY doing?’ We’re trying to follow that mentality of matching and going beyond what our future opponents are doing.”
Zdroik, who has an official visit scheduled for San Jose State later this fall, should have every opportunity to improve upon her 785 assists from 2014 thanks to an array of offensive weapons to set to this season. Taylor Dixon led the team with 351 kills a year ago — a number that should only go up for the athletic, 6-foot outside hitter.
“She’s been starting for three years,” Ghilarducci said. “You just have to watch her hit to know why. I wouldn’t want to be on the other side of that.”
Through the team’s first 18 sets of 2015, Taylor Dixon had already posted 49 kills. Richardson was right behind her with 48.
“I’ve played with (Hannah) since middle school,” Zdroik said. “She’s really fun to set on the outside because she’s so hard (for defenses) to read and it’s so fun to set her. Because she’ll go up and we’ll be like ‘How did you just get that kill, Hannah? What!?’”
Ashley Dixon is another skilled hitter who will factor in as a middle hitter, while Klisiwicz and junior Ashley Apel will also contribute from the middle.
“We have a really good offense right now,” Taylor Dixon said. “But we still have a lot of room for improvement, so hopefully that will give us a chance to be peaking at the right time of the season.”
The Lions have been in the top half of the Bay Valley Athletic League standings every year since Zdroik and Taylor Dixon began playing as freshmen in 2012. However, the only title they’ve been able to claim was a co-championship with cross-town rival Heritage during that freshman season. In 2013, the team went 6-4 in league play to finish third behind first-place Heritage and second-place Deer Valley-Antioch. Last season, the Lions improved to 8-2 but still finished second to an unbeaten Heritage team.
With Heritage having lost a fair amount of starters to graduation, things seem to line up for Liberty to complete the climb in 2015.
“We were right there with Heritage last year,” Ashley Dixon said. “This year, our team just has a really good vibe.”
That’s a sentiment that was passed along from pretty much every senior. And it goes back to Ghilarducci’s belief that this team has that ‘it’ factor when it comes to being hungry and wanting to win.
“I think that this group is different than any other group I’ve been on,” Richardson said. “I’ve been playing varsity since I was a sophomore, and this group is different than anything we’ve had before. Everyone is super positive. We all work together and we get the job done. Everybody is a leader on this team.”
But every good team faces hurdles, and the Lions discovered one of theirs early on.
After opening its season with a 6-0 effort at the San Lorenzo Tournament in late August, Liberty traveled to defending-NCS champion Monte Vista-Danville and lost in four sets 25-22, 25-22, 11-25, 25-17.
“There’s a lot expected from the volleyball world here at Liberty,” Ghilarducci said. “There’s a tradition here to do well, and I think this team is under a lot of pressure to win. I think they felt that pressure (at Monte Vista).”
If you take the total points scored in the match, Liberty scored just as many as Monte Vista. Both had 86. So one could argue that the talent is there, it’s just a matter of a learning how to win.
“Monte Vista knows how to win,” Ghilarducci added. “That’s one thing our state team had. It played to win with more belief. This is the type of group that will get there though.”
When they do, a league title and a deep postseason run are possible.
“Oh my gosh, that would be amazing,” Richardson said of potentially adding one or more banners to the gym wall. “Fantastic. No other feeling like it.”
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