High School Sports

Club volleyball breeds high school success in Stanislaus District


Joe Cortez


It looks as if we’ve got a volleyball hotbed on our hands.

Well, maybe not a hotbed, but with two Stanislaus District teams – Pitman in Division I and Sonora in Division IV – advancing to the finals of the CIF state tournament, we’re at least headed in the right direction.

“I’ve coached for 35 years in a lot of different places, and while I wouldn’t call us a hotbed, we’re definitely climbing in that direction,” said Tiger Shelton, coach at Modesto Junior College and director of Pacific Coast Volleyball Club in Stockton. “The Bay Area is a hotbed, and we’re getting into that area now.”

In the past, talk of state championships was limited in the Stanislaus District to a select group of football teams and a handful of basketball teams, but volleyball has made huge strides.

And it’s not just Pitman and Sonora. Hilmar reached the section final the past two seasons, taking Sonora to five sets in 2013, while Turlock Christian won its third consecutive Division VI banner this year.

Gregori reached the D-II finals in 2012, Golden Valley did the same in 2004 and ’06, and Oakdale was a D-III finalist in 2006 and ’08.

Le Grand, one of five district teams to play for a state football championship since 2007, was a section volleyball finalist two years ago, making it 22 consecutive seasons that the Stanislaus District had at least one local team in a D-V championship game.

And if the district is inching toward hotbed status, then the city of Ripon would have to be considered its hot spot. Over the past two decades, Ripon Christian has enjoyed more success than anybody locally, claiming a section record 15 D-V titles in a 22-year span. Meanwhile, Ripon High was the D-IV runner-up from 2006-09 before breaking through for a title the following year.

“I’ll tell you exactly what it is,” said Golden Valley coach Matt Thissen, whose Cougars were the lone Central California Conference team to take a game from Pitman this year and were league runners-up, along with Turlock, to the Pride. “There are more club opportunities for kids, and more kids taking advantage of them. That’s the bottom line.

“I’ll bet you that the number of clubs from Stockton to Merced, over the past 10 years, has quadrupled.”

Club play exposes good players to top-flight competition – and more of it – and allows the players to hone their skills.

“You’ve got kids playing at the club level and then they start playing at nationals,” said Shelton, who formerly coached at Ripon Christian. “And you’re starting to see the benefits at the high school level.”

But it’s not just paying off with league championships and deeper runs into the postseason. Local players are starting to get attention from big-time universities, too.

Maycie LaBass, a 2014 graduate of Gregori, is playing at Pacific, as is Andie Shelton, a 2014 Ripon Christian graduate and daughter of Tiger Shelton.

Then there’s Golden Valley’s Belen Castillo, a 6-foot-3 outside hitter who plays for the U.S. Youth National team and will play at Cal next year; and the Pitman tandem of setter Maddy Halteman and outside hitter Lindsey Vander Weide, who will attend Fresno State and Oregon, respectively, after graduation.

Though Thissen admits teams around the district, including his, benefit from club competition, he’d still like to see players take advantage of the athletic opportunities high school offers and play multiple sports.

“If you’re fortunate enough to play a sport after high school, it’s only going to be one sport,” Thissen said. “So why not play all the sports you can now.

“When (2006 grad) Kelly Leonardo played for me, she was league MVP in volleyball her senior year, and she played basketball and softball, too. She never played one day of club volleyball and still got a scholarship to Fresno State. Maybe she’s a rare case, but it can be done. You never know where you’ll be playing and who’s going to be watching.”

If this potential hotbed continues to get hotter, you can bet that a lot of folks around here will be watching.

Bee staff writer Joe Cortez can be reached at jcortez@modbee.com or (209) 578-2380. Follow him on Twitter @ModBeePreps.

CIF state volleyball

Who: Div. I, Pitman (44-1) vs. Redondo Union (37-2); Div. IV, Sonora (36-5) vs. Alta Loma (36-2)

When: Saturday – Sonora-Alta Loma (12:30 p.m.), Pitman-Redondo (8 p.m.

Where: Santiago Canyon College, Orange

At state: State titles

Tickets: Adults, $12; seniors (65+, children 5+, students with ASB card), $8.

Live streaming: www.twccommunity.com