The Cate girls volleyball team isn’t loaded with club players. Most of the girls on the roster play other sports once the season is over. Coaches Greg Novak and KC Collins molded this collection of athletes into a championship team this fall.
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The Rams completed a dream season, going 24-2, taking the Frontier League title in their first season in the league, capturing the CIF-Southern Section Division 4A title and winning their first state tournament match in program history.
“Going into the season, we knew because integral senior starters had graduated it could potentially set us back,” Novak, the fifth-year head coach, said. “But we also knew that the returning squad had a desire to go further than the year before. The new players added to the team were ready to step up and do what it took to rise to the occasion. We definitely thought we had the potential to do well in league and in a few playoff matches, not sure we thought we could win the CIF championship.”
As a boarding school, Cate student-athletes come from all over the world. There are seasons when Novak doesn’t know what the skill level will be until the first day of practice.
He knew this year’s group could play.
“We are fortunate to have two day students that are still able to play club,” he said. “A couple others played club in the ninth grade but the majority of the players played only up until eighth grade. Some of the boarding students attend camps during the summer, others take it upon themselves to work with teammates after practice. They are all good athletes and they know how to pass, set and hit the ball, so it’s the details we work on the most. Because our practices are a bit short, we don’t spend time conditioning, instead we spend time understanding concepts and perfecting their skills.”
It helped having several experienced players on the roster. Seven players returned from the squad that suffered a five-set loss in last year’s CIF semifinals.
That heart-breaking defeat served as a motivator all season.
“I think they didn’t want to have that feeling again,” Novak said. “Especially when I look back at our semifinal home match this year, it was the best match and performance all season.”
The Rams took apart an athletic team from Summit High of Fontana, winning in straight sets.
Peyton Shelburne, Maddie Becker and Delaney Mayfield led the attack while Hannah Bowlin, Lydia McMahon and Sumner Matthews anchored the defense. Hannah Barr ran the offense as starting setter. Xandrine Griffin manned the middle, while Anna Graves, Annie Tappe, Ciana Smiley, Jillian Rogers and Halie Straathof played roles off the bench. Becker, Griffin and Matthews are seniors.
Serving was a key factor in the win. Cate’s tough serves had Summit scrambling most of the night.
Novak said serving was where the team made the most improvement.
“This year, our serving contributed to a lot of points, not necessarily off aces but by getting our opponents out of system,” he explained. “We also minimized the amount of serving errors.
“A non-skill related improvement was the increase in our fan base,” he added. “With the new, later match schedule (6 p.m. instead of 4 p.m.), it allowed students to have dinner and make it to the matches; it really helped pump up the players. And the newly formed “Blue Crew” fans were a big help as well.”
The “Blue Crew” student rooting section had a part in the section championship win over Duarte at Cerritos College. With the match even a one set apiece, Duarte opened up a 7-3 lead in the third set. Novak called a time out and then the Blue Crew arrived after being stuck in traffic. The Rams responded and won the set, 25-22. They took the next one, 25-18, to claim the program’s first girls volleyball title since 1991 and become the area’s first champion since Dos Pueblos in 2009.
“We started feeling kinda good and then they showed up,” said Novak after the match of the Blue Crew’s arrival. “The girls lit up and they went off.”
The team pulled off a dramatic five-set win in its state tournament opener at Fowler in the Central Valley. The Rams prevailed after being down 9-4 in the fifth set.
“The team really wanted that first round state win, so when we got that final point, it was like winning the championship match all over again,” Novak said. “Being down 9-4 in a game to 15, you start to think that it might be over. But Hannah Bowlin served up several points and Peyton Shelburne helped with kills off of Fowler passing errors. We were soon up 11-9 and then closed out the match 15-13. We went crazy.”
Collins has played a key role in Cate’s success.
“She has helped raise the bar on player expectations,” Novak said. “At practice, KC can step in and fire up the team with her knowledge and attention to detail and coaching style. During matches you can really see the results of her coaching by the way the team performs.”
Coaching at Cate has been a rewarding experience for Novak. He’s learned to handle the school’s nontraditional schedule, which includes retreats, field trips, service projects and Saturday classes.
“There is a lot going on at Cate and it took me awhile to adjust to the schedule,” he said. “Once I took a step back to look outside of volleyball, I learned that ’life at Cate’ is a lot more than the classroom and gym. The kids are involved in so many school activities and they even have classes every other Saturday. They deserve the breaks they get. An absence due to a family trip may be questionable but it’s a bit hard to pressure kids when they miss practice due to a trip to USCB’s Neuroscience Lab or a trip to meet with Queen Elizabeth II.”
The volleyball team can say it has something in common with the queen — they both wear crowns.