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With dedicated seniors leading the way, Antioch volleyball is in midst of historic season   By CHACE BRYSON, Editor   It was 1996 and...

With dedicated seniors leading the way, Antioch volleyball is in midst of historic season


  It was 1996 and David Driskell, a junior at Antioch High, was trying out for the school’s defending North Coast Section-champion boys volleyball team when he rolled his ankle.

  And that was that.

  “Coming off of an NCS title, there wasn’t going to be much need for a player who was new to volleyball and had a bad ankle,” Driskell recalled. “But (then-coach Lou Panzella) allowed me to stick around and work as the team trainer. I went to all the games and got to experience that full season with the team.”

  That team went on to win the league title and repeated as NCS champs. No Panthers team has won as much as a league crown since.

  Twenty year later, Driskell is in his fifth season as Antioch’s coach and is in the homestretch of leading the program out of its darkest period and back toward the days he so fondly remembers. He’s not doing it with a team filled with transfers or elite club players, either. This Panthers team is led by a dedicated core of seniors who have committed to Driskell’s program for the past four years and now find themselves heavy favorites to win Antioch’s first Bay Valley Athletic League title in two decades.

  Josh Johns began his Antioch varsity career as a sophomore in 2014 when the team won just nine games. Then last season it was 11 wins and a brief, one game NCS playoff appearance after qualifying with a 5-5 finish in league. Thus, it’s safe to say that an 19-6 start to the season has felt a little different for the senior outside hitter.

  “It’s been a lot more enjoyable to walk around the campus and be able to say you won the last game,” said Johns, who leads the team in kills and is one of two Panthers players with club experience. “It’s a lot of fun. That’s what it’s all about. To have fun. Have fun with your guys, your brothers, and I think we’re doing that right now.”

  The Panthers took another big step in respectability on April 9 when they attended the Foothill Invitational in Pleasanton and went 4-1 and grabbed first place by defeating the host Falcons in the championship match. The weekend firmly established Antioch as a top five Division I team within the section (only California-San Ramon and Foothill had more wins through April 12), but it only fueled a confidence that was already burning within the Panthers.

  The lightbulb moment for Antioch came on March 19 in the Gold Division of the East County Invitational at Heritage High in Brentwood. That’s where the Panthers ran into a very strong Clovis team and ended up taking an extremely contentious second set 30-28 before losing the third set 15-13.

  “Clovis was all club players. All tall. All athletic,” Antioch senior middle hitter Jake Perkey said. “We beat them in a set and that really made us think, ‘Maybe we can go far.’”

  Senior libero Ramon Mayorga said he walked away from that Clovis match with the same feeling.

   “I knew that we could play against anyone if we could take them to three,” he said. “And we were just having fun. We were just having a good time. If we’re having a good time, we play well.”

  Believe it or not, Driskell saw a lot of this coming together at the end of last season. While the 2015 Panthers may have had more talent and size, this group and its senior class had a chemistry that was unmatched by any of his previous teams.

  That camaraderie has played out just as he expected, and his two club players Johns and setter Jordan La Bier have proven to be just the right senior leaders to let everything else fall into place. The 6-foot-8 Perkey has provided a dominant presence in the middle and Mayorga, a former hitter in his first year as libero, has solidified the back line.

  “I’ve never had a great libero until this year,” La Bier said. “(Ramon) came out of the blue and I don’t know where he came from. I really do thank him for stepping up. … (My part) has been a piece of cake. I’m just here for the assists, and it’s pretty easy setting to a 6-4 and 6-8 guy who can both kill the ball.”

  Johns had 354 kills through the team’s first 24 matches, averaging close to five kills per set.

  “That guy is a beast,” said Perkey, who is second on the team with 157 kills to go with 43 blocks. “He’s the most relieving player to play with. Because you know that if the ball is set to him and we need a point, we’re going to get that point because it’s set to him. He’s going to kill it. We’re going to go crazy. We’re going to get that boost we need. We’re going to win.”

  While nothing is a given, Antioch is about as strong a favorite to win the BVAL as any team could be. The Panthers are 4-0 in league with six games left to play. No other team in the league has more than eight overall wins after games played on April 14.

  While a league title will be a significant achievement for Antioch, this group doesn’t expect it to completely satisfy them.

  “It’ll be great leaving a mark on the wall (in the Antioch gym),” La Bier said. “I can bring my children back here and show them what we did and talk of how we brought Antioch volleyball back together. As far as winning a league title, it’s not enough for me. For me, and all those guys out there. We want to take it to NCS. We want to take it to (NorCals). We always are looking to take that one step further.”

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