SportStars Magazine

Cal High Volleyball: Championship CALibrated

Cal High, Volleyball

A Young Cal High Volleyball Team Arrived Earlier Than Expected When It Won 30 Games In 2017 — And Now The Title Window Is Wide Open For The Talented Roster •

With an impressive cast of impact players back from a section semi-finalist team, California High-San Ramon girls volleyball coach Todd Baham is rightfully optimistic about the Grizzlies’ chances this fall.

Cal High, Volleyball, Sofia Aguilera

Cal High’s junior outside hitter Sofia Aguilera is a key member of the Grizzlies young core. (Jean-Paul Toshiro photos)

And as the conversations steers toward the team’s younger stars-in-the-making, Baham’s enthusiasm soars.

“Knock on wood, this year we should make playoffs,” said Baham, in his 11th year as Cal High’s coach. “Next year, anything short of making it to the finals of NCS, I’ll be disappointed. Barring injury or anything like that, they have the tools to do it. And I tell them that every day. ‘You have the makings of something special here over the next couple years. … Enjoy it. Smile. Have fun.’”

You can notice the feeling that something special has been brewing. After all, Cal High went 30-5 last season, reaching the North coast Section Division I semifinals and making a trip to the CIF NorCal playoffs. It was their fourth time in the NCS semifinals in eight seasons, with 2012’s run producing an NCS championship. 

The talent is there for another potential title, whether this season or next. The future just might be now.

Sofia Aguilera, the 2017 team’s MVP, is back for her junior year as outside hitter, opposite and middle blocker. Last year she was a first-team All-East Bay Athletic League choice. Also back is junior outside hitter/opposite/defensive specialist Sadie Peete, who has made the All-EBAL second team both of her high school seasons.

 

Cal High, Volleyball, Sadie Peete

Sadie Peete fights for a point in the Grizzlies EBAL-opener at Amador Valley-Pleasanton on Aug. 21.

“Those two, they are dynamic. They just bring it,” said Baham, whose team was 13-1 through Sept. 11. “They are really fun to watch and they enjoy it. They do it the right way, and they’re not cocky. (Both girls) praise their setters, their teammates that pass and set them up. They are the first ones to go in and hug them and say, ‘Hey, great job!’”

Their older teammates realize these young colleagues have matured into stars.

“Sofia is so dominant, no one can stop her,” said senior libero Jessica Merchant, one of the Grizzlies’ three captains. “Her, and Sadie as well, are the best teammates, how they handle themselves. It’s weird seeing them as upperclassmen. I was so used to always seeing them as freshmen. On the court, we have very good communication; the three of us work well on serve-receive and defense.”

Baham is excited when it comes to the subject of sophomore Genevieve Bane. Baham said the 6-foot Bane has the potential to be a Division I player.

Cal High, Volleyball, Genevieve Bane

According to coach Todd Baham, sophomore Genevieve Bane may have the highest ceiling among any of the Grizzlies top offensive talent.

“Our most dynamic player is Genevieve Bane,” he said. “She’s 6-foot. Touches 10-1. And just annihilates the volleyball. She has no idea of how good she is. I am really looking forward (to what she will do in the future.)”

Merchant adds: “Genevieve, who we call Veeve, is a good team player and super mature for her age. She has grown up a bit and gained a lot of confidence.”

Youth needs leadership, and Cal High has plenty among its three senior co-captains. 

There’s Lindsey Burt, or “LB”, in her third year on varsity. Jennifer Dawson (“J-Daw”) wasn’t even slated to be a full-time starter. Yet her smarts — she has a 4.7 GPA — have made her a natural fit as a captain, Baham said. And there’s Merchant. Baham tossed her out of volleyball practice five times during her freshman year — something Merchant chuckles about now, having long since earned the honor of being asked to be a captain.

Cal High, Volleyball, Jessica Merchant

Senior libero/defensive specialist, Jessica Merchant, has earned her captain role through three plus years of varsity experience.

“When I was a freshmen, we butted heads a lot. But now we have a more understanding relationship,” she said. “He even asks for my input. That’s what I appreciate about Coach Todd; he involves captains a lot in decision-making. 

“When I was a freshman, he would have the captains talk to me, and now it has come full circle. But on the team now, no one has any issues …  no drama on the team, no egos getting in the way.”

This season, Cal High has a freshman making a big impact: setter Payton Lee, who displays veteran poise. “Many of us have been playing with her in open gyms since fifth grade. She is definitely not like a newbie,” Merchant said.

Initially, Baham envisioned a lineup with two setters. Those plans went awry at the end of summer league, when Maddie Damian, a transfer from Dougherty Valley-San Ramon, suffered a terrifying injury, breaking her tibia and fibula. Baham compared the frightful event to the injury suffered more than three decades ago by NFL quarterback Joe Theismann, a career-ender that horrified a national television audience. 

Cal High, Volleyball, Jenny Dawson

One of three senior captains, Jenny Dawson is a top notch scholar athlete, boasting a 4.7 GPA.

Damian is recovering after surgery, and Baham is eager to have her contribute the volleyball program next year, when she will be a senior. This season, she remains with the team and is a constant presence.

Right now, the Grizzlies are in the thick of competition in the EBAL, the section’s most dominant girls volleyball league in recent years. The EBAL has produced the last 12 NCS Division I champions. Monte Vista-Danville has won the past four with San Ramon Valley-Danville owning three. The two Pleasanton schools, Foothill and Amador Valley, each have two section titles during that span.

For whichever team emerges with this year’s EBAL title — and a likely No. 1 NCS seed — it won’t be easy. Cal High knew that heading in to their Aug. 21 league opener at Amador Valley, the team which Baham tabbed as the favorite to win the league. The Dons prevailed 25-13, 26-24, 14-25, 25-16, though the Grizzlies didn’t feel overmatched. Amador Valley went on to win its next 10 matches to open the season 11-0 through Sept. 10.

Cal High, Volleyball“We knew they were probably the biggest competitor in our league,” Merchant said. “We are excited to play them again later in the season. There were some things we could have done better. It was not like we didn’t have a chance against them. I think that next time it should be a pretty good matchup.”

Cal’s home EBAL opener on Aug. 23 against San Ramon Valley-Danville showed things coming together, as the Grizzlies posted a 25-19, 25-20, 25-23 victory. On Aug. 25, they won all five matches at the Tamalpais Tournament. The Amador Valley continues to be the only blemish through seven league contests.

“You can tell we are still getting our act together,” Merchant said. “Our first two games, you could tell we were just getting used to each other. Right now, our setter-mid connection is working really well.”

Based on recent history, the Grizzlies soon should be hitting on all cylinders and on their way toward another run to the playoffs. Confidence is not lacking.

“There’s no doubt in my mind we are going to be successful,” Merchant said. “Even in the rough matches, there’s no doubt we are going to have success, because we have more skill than ever.”

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