SportStars Magazine

Culture Shock

A New Coach And Attitude Helped The St. Ignatius Wildcats Evolve Into Title Threats

By DAMIN ESPER | Photos By NORBERT von der GROEBEN

Anne Crouch spikes the ball down the line on the right side, the ball spinning like the filthiest slider you ever saw, landing just inside the corner. Isabella Legarza blocks the ball perfectly on a spike attempt and follows it up with a pair of soft punch spikes for points. Mallen Bischoff slams a monster spike down the middle. Later, Bischoff serves an ace, causing Keely McCarthy to jump up off the bench and wave her hands in the air like she just don’t care. The girls on the bench cheer her on.

And Megan Lewis blasts spike after spike for the kill.

Meet the St. Ignatius High girls volleyball team. Under first-year coach David Huan, the Wildcats are getting ready for the Central Coast Section playoffs coming off of a second-place finish in the West Catholic Athletic League behind the nation’s No. 1 team, Archbishop Mitty-San Jose. St. Ignatius will be a formidable opponent for anyone in the playoffs.

And the Wildcats will enjoy the journey no matter what.

“The chemistry last year wasn’t very good,” Lewis says. “The chemistry this year, it’s incredible. It’s really fun. Everyone’s having a good time.”

Says Crouch, “It starts with practice, the way (Huan) talks to us, the way he coaches us. When we’re on the court, we’re so much more positive to each other. We’re playing together, we know it‘s not individual. We know that if we’re going to make a mistake that coach is going to have our back.”

Huan says his priority wasn’t necessarily hitting, passing and defense, although the team obviously works on that.

“The biggest improvement we wanted to make was to change the culture a little bit,” Huan says. “They were a good program, but they were maybe not the most successful in league, or so we felt like we could be in our league. With three state champs from last year‘s league, we know how incredibly tough it is.

“The first thing we wanted to do was just say, ‘Hey. We can compete.’”

Compete they have — the Wildcats went 4-1 in the WCAL, losing only to nationally-ranked Mitty. That after winning just one WCAL match in each of the three previous seasons. Overall, the Wildcats entered this year’s WCAL playoffs with a 27-6 record and could get the second-seed in the CCS Open Division. If they don‘t make that bracket, they would probably be the favorite in Div. II.

Says Crouch, “This has been a great positive change. Just getting in the (WCAL) playoffs, making it out of first round, being in the championship, it‘s all new to us. But I think we’re so ready for it. We‘ve been so prepared this whole season. And I think the coaching especially has taken us to so many new places.”

Huan has been a director at Red Rock Volleyball Club in Redwood City. He brought his fellow director and wife Marietta Flynn-Huan along to St. Ignatius. He was already coaching Bischoff and Legarza at Red Rock and when he heard about the coaching vacancy at St. Ignatius in June, he decided to try his hand at coaching high school.

So far, so good.

Crouch is the team’s leader in many ways. She prowls the court with a serious look on her face most of the time, her long wavy brown hair tied up in a ponytail, flopping around and obscuring the number five on her blue uniform top. She’s a team captain, leads St. Ignatius in kills and is also the top receiver. During the match, when she‘s in the back row, she is constantly talking to her teammates, passing on information even when the ball is on its way from the opposing team‘s serve. After losing points, she’s clapping her hands, saying, “C’mon, you guys, let’s go! Keep talking!” After missing on a dig, she takes responsibility to a teammate, then sticks her tongue out in disgust.

“We rely on her most consistently,” Huan says. “When she plays poorly, we probably don’t do as well. We struggle as a team. When she plays well, everybody else seems to play really well so I think the team kind of feeds and draws off of that.”

Adds Lewis, “We all kind of count on (Crouch). She’s just all-around good on offense, defense. She‘s a good captain, a good senior.”

Crouch hasn’t had to be the focus of the offense this year, which has allowed her to work on other areas of her game.

“Passing and defense has really been my focus this year,” she says. “I think we have a great front row. Hitting, getting all of the kills has been lifted off of my shoulders this season so I‘ve been working on my back row, getting my setters great passes. Anyone on the front row can put the ball away.”

One of those who puts the ball away is Lewis, who had 20 kills in a WCAL semifinal win over St. Francis-Mountain View. She recently committed to UC Santa Barbara.

“Tonight she lit it up,” Huan says after the match. “She was just unbelievable tonight, she just could not be stopped and we couldn‘t be happier. It’s not anything new or different than we’ve seen all season. But I think tonight was just one of those special games for her.”

Lewis gives credit to the way the team works together.

“The communication is really good from our defense behind us,” Lewis says. “You’ll be up and you won’t be able to see very much and you’ll hear them say, ‘Cross.’ It’s really helpful.”

Crouch has been through a lot in her four years on varsity. The Wildcats were a combined 66-44 and 3-15 in WCAL play her first three seasons. The new coaching staff, the success, the better team chemistry have made this season much more enjoyable. Although she sometimes has to work on it.

“I definitely take it more seriously but I‘m working on it,” she says. “I have a great time with these girls. They can bring out the funny side in me.”

How far can the Wildcats go? It depends, says Huan.

“I feel like there isn’t any one team we can’t beat,” he says. “But there’s also not any one team we can’t lose to either. We have enough talent, if we put it together, I think we’ll be just fine.

“Obviously, we don’t want to lose. We want to be the last team standing. We don’t want to lose that last match of the season. But, usually, there’s only one team that’s left standing. With Mitty being currently the No. 1 team in the nation, that’ll be a tough hurdle for us.”

Either way, the Wildcats will be fun to watch. But you won’t have as much fun as the girls do on the court.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *