A year ago the Los Banos volleyball team embarked on a brutal preseason campaign before sweeping through league play to end the season around .500.
This year's team is swelling with confidence, but it faces a similar preseason schedule. Coach Greg Soliz thinks this year's team is better prepared.
"I think this year we won't get beat up. I think we'll be able to do a better job of competing this year in preseason, but our preseason's different," Soliz said. "We play Buhach Colony, we play Gregori, which went to the finals in Division 2, we have Ripon, we have East Union out of Manteca, again we'll have Dos Palos, so it'll be a good, exciting preseason."
The Tigers will face this lineup with a few new faces in key positions junior outside hitter Jade Fachin is again a leader on the offense, but things have shuffled defensively.
On the front line, with starting middle blocker Michelle Gutierrez graduated, senior Savannah Peña steps into the spotlight.
"Those are big shoes to fill. I feel like she did really, really good last year, so I have to step it up," Peña said. "We have another middle who came up, Evelyn Johnson. She's improving a lot too, so I think we'll be OK. She's good. We're very competitive, both of us, so we're really hard against each other when it comes to the middle."
Johnson was the main blocker for the junior-varsity team, and will take some pressure off of Peña's shoulder the way Peña took pressure off of Gutierrez's shoulders.
"It's nice knowing if I have an off day, she'll be able to pull through and bring me back up," Peña said. "Or she'll be taking care of what needs to be done."
In the second line of defense, the Tigers graduated both liberos in Kassandra Gaxiola and Madison Fullington. The top player in line to replace them is senior Jenna Gilardi.
"I feel like Jenna's really stepped up this year in practice, she's really kind of dedicated herself a lot to being really good," Soliz said. "And she understands that position, she understands what it takes, and the responsibility. Really in practice, paying attention to the little things, the details of what it takes to be a good libero.
"She's really communicating on the court, talking, so as a libero, that's what you're also looking for."
The Tigers may have the most experience at the setter position, where senior Colleen Allen and junior Julia Waldron both return after splitting time last season. The two setters are again locked in a battle for the starting position, though Soliz said he will look for ways to get them both on the court.
"We're not sure yet if we'll run a 5-1 with one of those or if we'll run a 6-2 with both of them," Soliz said. "If we can have both setting, it always leaves three hitters in the front row. So whenever Colleen comes back to set, we always have Julia in the front, so we'll have three hitters. But if we run a 5-1, if they're in the front row, that leaves us with two hitters only, because they have to set."
On the outside, the Tigers lose seniors Mattea Clarke and Monica Mendiola, but another centerpiece of last year's JV team is set to make a difference Veronica Lamprede played with Fachin this summer on the Ripon Rage 16U team that made it to the national tournament. Others who will rotate in on the outside include Breanne Cascia and Kirsten Robertson.
"This team, it seems like we really mesh together. I don't know, something about this team, we just know each other a lot better," Fachin said. "I'm pretty sure the whole team feels confident. But not too confident, of course. We have a lot of room for improvement. Everyone's excited to learn new things. It's nice having a team that's eager to learn new things."
Enterprise reporter David Witte can be reached by phone at 388-6565 or by e-mail at email@example.com