With nine players returning from a team that challenged for the Valley Oak League title a year ago, coach Shelli Ponce has high expectations for the Mustangs -- and outside hitter Alexis Evans made sure her coach wasn't disappointed during last weekend's Johansen Volleyball Tournament.
Evans totaled 47 kills, 11 aces and about 75 digs as the Mustangs went unbeaten while winning the 12-team event. The Mustangs beat Modesto Metro Conference favorite Modesto, West of Tracy and Hilmar in the championship bracket.
"This is Alexis' fourth year on varsity, as well as her fourth year as a starter," said Ponce, noting Evans was with the Mustangs when they advanced to the Northern California playoffs two years ago.
"The key this year is a combination of experience and a great group of girls who get along both on and off the court. I was pleased to see the girls unify so quickly."
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T.J. VanderVeen and his Modesto High soccer team didn't waste any time shedding the bitterness of last year's defeat in the opening round of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I playoffs. The Panthers won the Modesto Metro Conference, but were upset 2-1 by Buhach Colony in their final match.
The Panthers appear ready for another title run after going 4-0 to earn a share of the crown at the Davis Tournament. VanderVeen, moving from defense to the midfield to help offset the loss of last year's two midfielders, had three goals.
"His production wasn't surprising because (T.J.) has a strong, accurate shot he likes to use," said Modesto coach Matt Mendes, whose Panthers are again favored to capture the MMC championship. "He also knows how to crash the net to pick up those 'garbage' goals.
"It's nice to start with a few wins, but more importantly we played well together and stayed healthy."
Natalie Grubb has always brought a high level of energy to the court, Hilmar High coach Mike Alvernaz said, though at times last season her emotion was laced with nerves.
"Natalie has worked hard over the summer. She's a seasoned player and brings a high level of energy to her game and our team," said Alvernaz, whose club went 8-1 to finish second in the Johansen Tournament. "She is showing that she can be a consistent weapon. She has lowered the number of errors and can hit it almost anywhere on the court."
The outside hitter had 29 kills, three blocks, eight aces and 19 digs, as the Yellowjackets beat Enochs and Denair before falling to Oakdale in three games.
"Last year we tended to win the first game and then play down the second game," Alvernaz said. "We have a good core group of players that know how to win and they are teaching the younger players the same thing."
What a couple of weeks it's been for Francisco Gutierrez, one of 11 freshmen on a team looking for its identity following the transfer of Carlos Navarette -- The Bee's 2007 Soccer Player of the Year.
Navarette was second in the state in scoring last season, and the question was whether the Wildcats could compensate for such a loss.
Gutierrez provided an early answer with two goals and an assist as the Wildcats opened the season with a 4-1 win over Ripon Christian.
"Francisco is a hard worker, can find open space and takes on defenders," said coach Barry Wixom, whose club played in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division VI final last season. "We have three very competent goalkeepers and several players who will help us right away. The defense will be a rough spot until we find the right mix, but I am confident our team will be just fine when it is all said and done."
-- RICHARD T. ESTRADA