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Archbishop Mitty-San Jose Takes Aim At An Unprecedented Sixth Straight State Crown • Story By JAMES G. KANE | Photos By DOUG STRINGER It... Six Shooters

Archbishop Mitty-San Jose Takes Aim At An Unprecedented Sixth Straight State Crown •


It doesn’t take long.

Only a few moments into the conversation, and Archbishop Mitty-San Jose coach Bret Almazan-Cezar recognizes what’s ahead. The name of another legendary team and the still legendary coach are never far away.

His program could write its own chapter on that subject, so he jumps right in. “I see,” he says, “where this is going.”

This is where most coaches might steer the dialogue in another direction. Not this one. Almazan-Cezar says he’s flattered that the volleyball program he’s overseen since 2000 is mentioned in the same breath with one so fabled it became a movie.

“I get the De La Salle metaphor,” Almazan-Cezar says of the Concord high school that won a national record 151 consecutive games and its famed coach, Bob Ladouceur.

“To be honest, what else can you be but flattered?,” he asks. “I mean, you see what they do.”

Senior outside hitter Julia Devine.

Each year, more and more people are noticing what the Monarchs do. Which is, simply, stand tall, smile and accept congratulations after winning the final game in the California Interscholastic Federation playoffs.

Mitty has won five straight state championships, an unprecedented feat in girls volleyball, topping the standard of four (most recently accomplished by Branson-Ross in Division V from 2009-2012). The Monarchs’ 2016 title, a sweep of SoCal powerhouse Santa Margarita-Rancho Santa Margarita, gave the school its first Open Division championship. The first four came in Division II against Martin Luther King-Riverside (2012), Santiago-Corona (2013), South Torrance (2014) and Valley Christian-Sun Valley (2015).

The Monarchs won 15 of 17 sets in the five victories. Almazan-Cezar has been the head coach for all of them — just as he was when the Monarchs carted home Division II state titles in 2003, 2004, 2008 and 2009.

“It’s an amazing experience to be a part of this program,” senior outside hitter Julia Devine says. “People only talk about the winning, and that’s great. But it’s the whole experience.”

The experience goes well beyond the court. The Monarchs are a talented bunch, and their status as a private institution does their opponents no favors. Often a player who may be the most talented at another school works her way up the Archbishop Mitty ladder.

No surprise here, but the Monarchs are loaded again.

Devine, bound for USC where she’ll play beach volleyball next season, led the team through Sept. 8 with 38 digs and 53 points produced by the team on her serve.

Senior Kamrin Caoili (16.3 ace percentage), a four-year starter bound for Santa Clara, is one of the team’s best servers, but she’s even more devastating on the front line where she puts away 53.3 percent of her kill attempts. That mark and her .438 hitting percentage are team bests.

Senior setter Makaela Tanaka.

Caoili might dominate more of the statistical categories if not for senior Nicole Liddle, the Dartmouth-bound “smart one” of the bunch, Almazan-Cezar says. Liddle leads the Monarchs with 79 kills and averages 3.6 per set. Senior middle blocker Moriah Scott has produced 25 blocks and averages 3.1 per match. Junior Kyahana Robinson has 19 blocks and a 47.2 kill percentage, both marks second on the Monarchs.

They all benefit from setter Makaela Tanaka and her precise passes. Through Sept. 8, she had already tallied 244 assists, and averaging 10.2 per set.

So yeah, the Monarchs are loaded. So loaded that they should be able to overcome the loss of Candice Denny, who had a .600 hitting percentage to pace everybody at the state tournament, then headed off to Arizona.

Nevertheless, to call the program’s mission solely about talent and wins and losses would be a mistake.

For one, the Monarchs do lose occasionally. Just as they did twice on a Labor Day weekend trip to Southern California. Mater Dei-Santa Ana and Torrey Pines-San Diego — always among the best in the state — both beat Mitty in four sets, part of a 6-3 start leading into their WCAL opener against Saint Francis-Mountain View on Sept. 19.

“That was one of the best experiences for this team,” Devine says. “We all got a chance to see the super-high level of intensity, focus and execution we’ll have to have. It teaches us that the way we were playing might be fine to beat the teams in our league, maybe, but we are striving for something much greater than that.”

Or put another way, it’s a culture thing. That’s the other word you hear when it comes to the dynastic program from that other sport. The thing about culture is that sometimes it simply builds upon itself. Like anything in life, such a special thing requires care. The Monarchs often take retreats together, where veterans mix with newcomers.

“It’s like ‘Welcome to the family.’ We usually do something right after tryouts,” Tanaka says. “That way the team can start finding out who we are, how our personalities mix, backgrounds, everything.”

Tanaka uses herself as an example. She is a three-year starter for the Monarchs, one of the best in the state at her position, and off to Fordham University next season.

But she described herself as timid amid her entry into the Monarchs’ program and said she never had experienced the intensity that such an endeavor brings. Not so much anymore. The player Almazan-Cezar describes as the powerhouse’s point guard is often the coolest one when the heat is on.

Senior libero/defensive specialist Lauren Haniger.

That’s not a maturity level achieved easily. Nor is it one that happens overnight.

“You do want to develop a culture that becomes more important, even than the sport that you’re playing,” Almazan-Cezar says. “In our case, we’re dealing with young women who are training to get better at every aspect of their lives every single day, not just get better at their sport. That’s enough of a task in itself.

“But what happens is that as it grows, it becomes who you are. Like our kids. If you ask them who our rivals are, they won’t have an answer. If you ask them what their goals are, they all will answer that it’s to be better than we were yesterday. Yes, it’s cliché. It sounds like a trite statement. But that is all our mind-set is. We’re trying to get better. If we do that, the girls all believe they’ll be in the final match of the year.”

Maybe it’s a cliché. Maybe it’s simply plain truth.

Back to Tanaka, the setter who is a master at understanding charts that pinpoint where the defense is weakest. She’s even more adept at delivering passes at the most optimum place in the air to give the outside hitters a chance to hit those spaces.

Her best quality, perhaps, is she reminds the team to exhale.

“We focus a lot on breathing, and making sure we’re activated and present in the moments when you might try to be nervous or fearful,” Tanaka says. “We call it the thermostat. You’re not getting too down when something is going wrong. You’re not getting too high when things are going great. That’s something we practice just as much as anything else we do.”

While practice may not make everything perfect, the Monarchs are usually closer to it on the court than anyone else.

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