SportStars Magazine

Winged Pursuit

’16 Volleyball Preview: Seven seniors lead the way as Christian Brothers looks for third SJS title in four years.

  Story by JIM McCUE | Photos by JAMES K. LEASH

  Consistency and contention have been mainstays in the Christian Brothers girls volleyball program through the years. Mostly under the watch of head coach Diane Heine, the Falcons consistently challenged for league titles and contended for Sac-Joaquin Section banners.

  The 2016 season starts with the third head coach in as many years, but Christian Brothers is off to a steady start with very little concern about the changes the program has endured.

  The primary focus for new head coach James Todd — who came to the Falcons from a rising Whitney-Rocklin program he helped build — and the Falcons’ senior-heavy roster are those mainstays of consistency and contention.

  “One of my main goals coming in was to continue the tradition of success on the court that this program and this group of seniors have experienced,” Todd said. “Having seven seniors has helped to lead the team through the process.”

  With a wealth of veteran players, Todd skipped naming anyone team captains and instead gave the leadership role to the entire senior class on his roster. Handing the reins over to those with more experience in the program than him has paid early dividends.

  The Falcons (5-0 through Sept. 9) opened the season with impressive victories over perennial section contenders Granite Bay and St. Francis-Sacramento. The win over St. Francis in their long-running Holy Court rivalry saw Christian Brothers overcome a 2-0 deficit to win the match in five grueling sets. With victories comes confidence, and that could be trouble in the months ahead for Falcons opponents in Capital Valley Conference action and postseason play.

  “Those big wins early have made a difference,” senior Paloma Bowman said. “Starting off strong like that has increased our focus and we have high expectations for each other and as a team.”

Ryann Thomison  Bowman and fellow seniors Ryann Thomison, Erin Chelini, Mackenzie Lusich, Marley Downey, Ceyenna Tillman and Erin Clark have led the underclassmen to form a close bond for the veterans’ last run at section and state championships. The Falcons have won two of the past three SJS Division III titles and played in four of the past five Div. III finals — so aiming high is nothing new for the program, especially for the seniors.

  While coach Todd’s first goal is “for (the players) to leave as better young adults than when they came into the program,” the players set four team goals. The first three—win Holy Court, win section and win state — are common enough goals that are set by most top-tier programs. The fourth goal zeroes in on the consistency that teams past have built and that the new coach wants to continue.

  “We have a goal to not lose two games in a row all season long,” senior outside hitter Erin Chelini said. “We know that there may be games where we struggle, but we want to make sure that we bounce right back from a loss.”

  That goal may be tested with nonleague contests upcoming against Div. I opponents Folsom and Pleasant Grove, and in the always competitive CVC, but the Falcons hope to use their strengths to compete in every game and overcome any perceived disadvantages on the court.

  “We lose on height, but gain on speed,” said Chelini, who is the second-tallest player on the roster at 5-foot-10. “We are a well-conditioned team and we try to keep it quick so that opponents can’t keep up with us.”

  Chelini and Bowman may be the biggest hitting threats, even if neither casts a particularly imposing presence at the net. Thomison, a 6-foot middle blocker, is the Falcons’ tallest player and led the team in blocks during its Div. III championship season a year ago, but coach Todd and his charges understand that they will not overpower opponents.

  “We are an undersized team, so we try to run a very fast and complex offense to offset any height disadvantage,” Todd said. “When I have the leadership and experience of six seniors on the floor at times, I feel that we have the upper hand.”

  Bowman, who has committed to UC Davis, is the Falcons’ biggest threat because of her versatility. A 5-foot-10 athlete who plays setter on her Five Starz club team, Bowman can beat teams as a hitter and blocker on the inside and the outside.

  “Her biggest strength is her passion for the sport,” Chelini said of Bowman. “It has been helpful for the newer girls to see her practice and play and to see that work ethic all of the time.”

  Todd called Bowman a “godsend” for her talent, hard work and coachability. But the coach and his seniors admit that the players in the background — or in this case, the back row — are what makes the Falcons a team to beat this year.

  “As a team, we handle the ball real well and play great defense,” Todd said. “We can handle the first and second hit real well, which makes the third hit much more effective.”

  At libero, Lusich is the Falcons’ catalyst on defense and has set the tone and the standard for Christian Brothers to follow on the court. The team’s emphasis and buy-in toward meeting the program’s established standards, and setting their own standards for what is a “perfect teammate,” has strengthened the family bond that comes with spending a large portion of the fall sports season practicing, playing, traveling and being together.

  “We have been playing well as a unit,” Chelini said. “If we can continue to communicate well and support each other on and off the court, then I believe that we will continue to do well.”

  And that’s really all the consistency that a coach can ask for from a contender.

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