TURLOCK -- Kristen Pontes and the Pitman volleyball program have enjoyed a remarkable, if not historic run through the Central California Conference the past two seasons.
The Pride are 28-2 in that span, including 15-0 this fall, with a conference winning streak that dates back a full calendar year.
The cherry on top is more a like a crown a triple crown. Each of the last two seasons will have ended with a banquet hailing CCC champions at the freshman, junior varsity and varsity levels.
This fall's banquet (scheduled for Nov. 19, four days after the Sac-Joaquin Section plays its championship matches) will have a little more buzz and excitement; another reason to stand and cheer.
Pitman went 45-0 as a program en route to its three Central California Conference championships.
"Every level had a goal to repeat last year to win the CCC," said Pontes, whose team opens the Division 1 playoffs today vs. Bella Vista.
"I don't think anyone anticipated having an undefeated triple crown. I don't think the players realize how big or how significant that is. The girls are proud. They deserved it because they worked so hard, but I think it's still settling in."
As elated as she is, Pontes realizes the program she's carefully constructed is far from a finished product. There's still one goal left to accomplish: A Division 1 championship, a prize no Stanislaus District team has claimed in 31 years.
Merced was the last to do it, sweeping Lincoln of Stockton in the 1981 final, 15-13, 15-10.
Since then, not a single team has reached the final.
"That's pretty crazy," Pontes said, shocked by district's large-school drought.
No. 5 Pitman (29-5-2) is a longshot in a bracket governed by No. 1 St. Francis and No. 2 St. Mary's, programs that have combined to win 23 section titles and have reached the last two Division 1 finals. St. Francis is the defending champion.
"The biggest thing for us is that confidence; making the girls realize that we can do it," Pontes said. "You walk into St. Mary's gym and they have this aura about them. It's like they know they're going to make it. I tell the girls, 'That's what we're building.'
"As a coach, we try to build them up and give them that confidence. It's an ongoing battle, but we're making strides.
St. Mary's has eliminated the Pride in the second round the last two years losses Pontes believes have served Pitman well. She changed to an up-tempo offense quarterbacked by Maddy Halteman (387 assists), similar in style to the Rams' attack.
Pitman is positioned opposite No. 2 St. Mary's in the bracket, a relief only if Pontes and her girls keep winning.
"We want to go farther than we ever have before third round, make it to the finals and push through," Pontes said. "I think we have the talent and motivation. It's all going to depend on the night."
The journey begins tonight.
Pitman is one of nine district teams to host a first-round match. The others include: No. 8 Atwater vs. Kimball in D2, No. 8 Oakdale vs. Pioneer in D3, and No. 1 Escalon vs. Calaveras and No. 7 Los Banos vs. Hilmar in D4.
The Pride welcome Bella Vista (29-8), the Capital Valley League's third-place finisher. Led by versatile senior setter Michelle Hernandez, Bella Vista dispatched Bethel in last Friday's outbracket match, 3-0.
All matches start at 7.
"As soon as we won league, I told the girls to go ahead and celebrate," Pontes said, "but tomorrow, it doesn't get any easier."
James Burns is Regional Sports Content Editor of The Modesto Bee and Merced Sun-Star. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2324.