High School Sports

Escalon volleyball tested by tough preseason schedule, injuries to captains

Escalon outside hitter and team captain Kylee Irwin-Paz.
Escalon outside hitter and team captain Kylee Irwin-Paz.

The Mad Scientist isn’t deterred by setback or failure.

In Kayla Kootstra’s mind, there can’t be breakthrough without trial and error.

So the Escalon volleyball coach has put her team through a series of tests, some she knew would be impossible and fraught with frustration.

The Cougars have played one of the Stanislaus District’s toughest nonconference schedules, lining up dates with Division I and II playoff-caliber opponents.

The small-school Cougars began their season with losses to reigning Modesto Metro Conference champion Enochs, CIF State Division I runner-up Pitman and a two-loss Tracy team. There have also been dates with Valley Oak League champion Oakdale, Sac-Joaquin Section Division VI titleholder Turlock Christian and Central Section power Central of Fresno.

I tried to schedule a tough preseason. My team wasn’t super excited with me, especially when we kept losing. I tried explaining my vision: If we could play with this caliber, we’d be good to go the rest of the season.

Kayla Kootstra, Escalon coach

Escalon lost eight of its first 14 matches, but Kootstra, a former science teacher at Escalon High School, isn’t ready to call this experimental schedule a failure.

Her assessment: Strangely, things have gone accordingly to plan.

“I tried to schedule a tough preseason. My team wasn’t super excited with me, especially when we kept losing,” Kootstra said. “I tried explaining my vision: If we could play with this caliber, we’d be good to go the rest of the season. Hilmar will be tough. Ripon will be tough. In the playoffs, we know we’ll see some tough teams. So I wanted to see as many of them in the preseason.”

The Cougars got their fill at the Central California Classic, a two-day tournament featuring many of the top teams in the Stanislaus District and Central Section.

Kootstra said the Classic, which is hosted by Golden Valley and staged at sites throughout Merced County, is a test not only of ability but stamina and depth, too. The Cougars played eight matches in two days and reached the Bronze Division final where they were foiled by Gregori, a Division I program.

“It was really good for us to see a variety of teams,” said Kootstra, her club holding firm at No. 4 in The Bee’s small-school rankings. “I think the caliber of play is always really high, so it allowed us to just really stretch ourselves against really good teams and see what we have. That’s been important for us, especially during this preseason.”

Injuries have kept the Cougars from realizing their potential. Captains and outside hitters Maddie Nicholas (back) and Kylee Irwin-Paz (abdominal) sat out the second day at the Classic as they recovered. Santa Clara-bound libero Taylor Laugero also has missed time because of a nagging hamstring.

8 The number of champions crowned at the Central California Classic last weekend: Clovis (Gold); Hilmar (Silver); Gregori (Bronze); Golden Valley (Copper); Atwater (Platinum); El Capitan (Titanium); Turlock Christian (Steel); and Kimball (Chrome).

Escalon has played just one match with all 12 of her players available. Kootstra believes she’ll have her full roster for Wednesday’s Trans-Valley League showdown against No. 5 Ripon.

“We’re excited to see what our team looks like fully healthy,” said Kootstra, who believes the injuries have revealed the team’s versatility.

Nicole Sarkozy and Cydney Keener have filled in admirably outside. Keener is a converted setter.

The Mad Scientist takes stock of all of this – the schedule and setbacks, the progress and performances, the injuries and opportunities – and she believes a breakthrough is right around the corner.

“I think we stand a shot,” she said of knocking off three-time defending TVL champion Hilmar. “It’s on my radar. … The wins and losses are what they are. I scheduled a tough preseason and knew some of those would be losses. But as long as we take care of our mistakes, I think we’ll peak when I know we should.”

Nest full of siblings for Enochs Eagles

Enochs’ title defense in the Modesto Metro Conference is bolstered by chemistry. That which seventh-year coach Cathi Varni has created, and that which she has inherited.

The No. 3 large-school Eagles benefit from six sets of sisters throughout the program, including four that help shape the varsity team.

The Enochs volleyball team benefits from six sets of sisters, including four that help shape the varsity team: Tea Carter (varsity) and Haley Taylor (2015 graduate); Raegan (varsity) and Kendall (freshman) Seifert; London (varsity) and Jaiden (freshman) Stoeck; Dominique Lewis (varsity) and Amaya Reyolds (junior varsity); Spoogmai (JV) and Zeba (freshman) Ahmad; and freshman sisters Michele and Aimee Acosta.

Senior setter Tea Carter shared the floor with her sister Haley Taylor last fall, while outside hitter Raegan Seifert is joined in the program by her sister Kendall, a member of the freshman team.

Junior outside hitter London Stoeck also has a sister, Jaiden, on the freshman team, while junior middle blocker Dominique Lewis’ step-sister Amaya Reynolds plays for the junior varsity.

“They see what their older sisters are required to do,” said Varni, who has won three MMC titles in seven seasons. “They come in with that knowledge that ‘Coach Varni is going to want this, this and this.’ Anytime you don’t have to re-teach something, it’s helpful.”

The other siblings include: Spoogmai (JV) and Zeba (freshman) Ahmad, and freshman sisters Michele and Aimee Acosta.

James Burns: 209-578-2150, @jburns1980