Oak Ridge is ready to roll with a highly respected new coach and a strong senior class
By JIM McCUE | Senior Contributor
The Oak Ridge High girls volleyball team wsan’t in need of a new start after a 28-8 campaign in which the Trojans advanced to the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I semifinals. A successful season and a history with four section titles since 2002 is not the typical precursor to a program reboot.
But few programs get the opportunity to bring on a new head coach with back-to-back section crowns within the last five years and a desire to return to courtside after a two-year hiatus spent welcoming and nurturing twins Keegan and Kelsey, who will will turn 3 after the 2015 season is over.
“I am excited to get back into it,” said Patrick Sanders, who takes over the Oak Ridge program after coaching and teaching at nearby Vista del Lago in Folsom. “The itch to be around the game is in you if you are a volleyball player. It’s part of you, and it doesn’t go away.”
Sanders was notified and encouraged to apply for the coaching position by his wife, Heidi, who teaches at the El Dorado Hills campus. After taking on the coaching job, Sanders was hired by the school to teach math, which he’d been doing at Vista del Lago since the school opened eight years ago.
Returning to the bench was made easier for Sanders by the knowledge that the Trojans were returning a quartet of seniors, including three starters who played in at least 102 of the team’s 106 sets in 2014. Elizabeth Cameron, Megan Priest and Olivia Reid have played together for nearly eight years and were key contributors last season when Oak Ridge reached the Div. I semifinals before losing a five-set marathon to Pleasant Grove-Elk Grove.
Cameron, a setter, racked up 971 assists and added 115 digs and 58 kills while running the Trojans’ offense. Reid was the recipient of many of those sets as the outside hitter recorded 276 kills to go with 289 digs and a team-best 64 aces. Priest anchored Oak Ridge’s defense as the team’s libero with 225 digs and 35 aces. Middle blocker Emma Flewell, who came to Oak Ridge from Canada as a freshman, bid her time as a junior behind seniors Kelly Krigger and Marissa Quilici, but is expected to have a big impact in the middle in her final high school season.
“With a new coach, it is refreshing because there is a fresh start and nothing is based on what the coaches know or think about players or potential,” Flewell said. “Everyone is being judged on their skill and what they show on the court.”
Cameron and Priest echoed the sentiment that the transition has been smooth and extremely positive for the program. “The transition has been phenomenal,” Priest said of Sanders becoming the program’s third head coach in just a four-year span. “He has completely redone the program and made it better than ever.”
Sanders was fully aware of Oak Ridge’s past success and wanted to respect the program’s history upon arriving on campus. The coach continued a traditional team camping retreat up Highway 50 in Sly Park, but also wanted to be sure to establish himself as the new man in charge.
“I want to keep the traditions of the program, which has been very strong throughout the years, but I also have to set the tone for what I want the team to be,” Sanders said. “I want to carry on the tradition of success and the high standard of play that has been established at Oak Ridge, and I look to our seniors to encourage that and to mentor the younger players.”
The four seniors are eager to move forward and take on the leadership role to help the team take the necessary steps to hang their own banner in the school gymnasium. This group of seniors were just sixth graders when Oak Ridge last won an SJS championship in 2009, claiming the Division I title with a straight-set win over Nevada Union-Grass Valley.
“As the setter, I need to run the court, but I also want to keep the team composed and staying within the system,” Cameron said. “We have the talent and the experience to succeded, so we need to make sure that we stay focused on our goals.”
Sanders and his seniors are clear about what those goals are.
“Our goal is November,” Sanders said of the Trojans’ desires to do well in the postseason. “We talk about getting better every day for what happens in November.”
Getting close last November was not good enough, and served as motivation for this year’s seniors to aim high—for the biggest goal possible, a CIF State Championship.
“Our main goal is to get to state, but we know that we set other goals that will lead us there,” Flewell said. “We want to win league and win sections so that we can advance to state, but that is the ultimate goal.”
Cameron, Priest, Reid, and junior middle blocker Hailey Maniglia reached the ultimate goal this past summer as members of the Northern California Volleyball Club (NCVC). The four Trojans were part of the club’s 17-1 Black team that won a gold medal in the Gold Division of the USA Junior Nationals in New Orleans. Priest was named tournament MVP for the Gold Division, and the experience was satisfying, but perhaps left a thirst to claim more hardware, especially before the longtime teammates will split up to play collegiately at different schools.
Priest knows the Trojans’ team bond must extend beyond the group of seniors to get everyone on the same page and working together to achieve the ultimate goal.
“We have not all played together a long time, but we are working hard to come together,” Priest said. “We are all hard-working and dedicated, so any uncertainty on the court will work itself out. I think that winning state is definitely a reachable goal, but we have to keep focused to get there.”
Oak Ridge will have a challenging nonleague slate followed by the ultra-competitive Sierra Foothill League that includes recent section champs Granite Bay and Rocklin. That should allow the Trojans to jell and prepare for November.
“We are a stepping stone team,” Reid said. “The first step is winning league, and then we want to win section. Winning state is the ultimate goal that we put on the board as a team, and we wouldn’t put it on the board if it was not a realistic goal.”
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