Sunday, October 30, 2005

Northgate Tournament (volleyball) 2005

At about 6:00 Pm last night, I found myself standing next to two of the only adults in the Northgate High School gym who weren’t the parents of players, though one was the mother of a coach.  I also found myself next to a hamster armed with nunchucks.  (I still say it’s rarer to find a non-parent or coach watching a high school volleyball match than it is to see a rodent with martial arts training)  For those of you who read posts on prepvolleyball or volleytalk, I was also standing next to two members of the species volleyposter ursinus though neither appeared to be covered in fur or claimed to be related to Winnie the Pooh though one had a grandchild who was just as cute as Winnie the Pooh and maybe even Eor.  At the moment, Redwood was rather surprisingly taking it to Campolindo and had a seven point lead early in the first game.  

I’ve personally never “smelled” an upset.  For many years I theorized that upsets smell like cotton candy or old beer in Fenway and Comiskey Park, I am convinced now that I don’t know what they smell like because I was around a few of them at the Northgate tournament yesterday and I don’t recall a particular smell.  That’s the trouble with clichés, most of them don’t even make sense.  Even worse, does anyone know how hard it’s been to be a Giants fan these last four years.  First the Angels then the Red Sox and now the White Sox.   At this point, Willie Mays is one of the last living participants in the 1954 World Series and he's already a statue on Townsend Street.  Even Hufflepuff got to win at Quidditch one year.

The biggest upset happened on this same court just before the Campolindo/Redwood match.  I only heard Lewis Libby’s name mentioned once the entire day.  I suppose had he been indicted for the real crime of essentially killing 30,000 people, there might have been more talk.  Instead, he was basically just indicted for being a schemer and a liar protecting what amounted to an act of treason, I don’t mean the outing of a CIA agent I’m talking about misleading an entire country into preemptive war.  Oh, there was also the matter of Maria Carrillo, a Santa Rosa School, known for the last 6 years as Sather Prep to volleyball folk.  The middle one went off to UCLA and most people assumed this would be a rebuilding year there.  This year Jeff Nielson is working with a very young group anchored by seniors Jean Lightfoot and Kathryn Robertson who share the floor with three sophomores Meredith Johnson, Elaine Poulsenand Danielle Loyola, and a freshman Ally Sather.  Mara Carrillo is in first place in the North Bay League but I doubt that many people expected them to do much at this 32 team tournament.  Instead, they took apart a very good senior dominated Northgate team that was playing at home and had won both the Castro Valley and Deer Valley tournaments earlier in the year.  In fact, Northgate’s only prior loss had been to Campolindo.  Carrillo then went on to go three with Liberty, a fine team from the outer East Bay, that also doesn’t get a lot of attention.  In fairness to Northgate, the Carrillo match went three games and this was not the same steady Northgate team that I saw early in the year.   I understand that they lost a starting middle in warmups just before the match. They also may have been looking ahead a bit to their planned final with Campolindo and I’m sure they will be fine when NCS 2 comes around.  

Campolindo, fwiw, likely wasn’t the best volleyball team at the tournament.  I think even they would have a hard time playing against the assembled coaches which included Kim Oden (St. Francis), Sarah Dukes (Carondelet), Elsa Stegemann-Binder (El Molino), Scott Bishop (Campolindo).  Okay, even if you don’t let the boy play after he makes his Title 9 claim, I say let those three play with Katie Pease (Redwood, SonomaState) and any two other coaches there and it might have been a very entertaining match.  I would comment that there may have been stretches when Norcal volleyball had more monster bodies playing high school,  as in no one was doing the “look at that girl she’s a certain fab 50” thing much yesterday, but there are a lot of very good coaches working the sidelines in NCS and environs.  It shows.  I would say that this tournament in particular ran much deeper than what I’ve seen in the past because the coaching’s been really sound at so many schools including the ones whose coaches weren’t star players.  Just watching Redwood, for instance, you always see a team that’s well conditioned, technically proficient, and that runs a varied offense.  I suspect that program has an Absolutely bright future. Whatever gets said about St. Francis these days, even if the results aren’t as elite as they were a couple years ago, it still looks from a distance like “real” volleyball and a very serious program.  It’s just a young team.   Northgate, Liberty, Maria Carrillo, and Carondelet all look to be solid for a while.  

     We spent the early part of the morning at Ygnacio Valley.  Castro Valley, which has a very good middle and libero, wound up out of the top 16.  Carondelet, a very strong team with an excellent middle and steady setter, didn’t make the final eight after being upset by both San Ramon and Deer Valley.  Justin Sienna, one of the stronger division IV teams, also came up just short after losing in three to both Carondelet and El Molino.  Justin Sienna is entertaining at least partly because their coach wanders the sideline with a tootsie pop in his mouth to keep himself from “speaking up” too much when his team doesn’t Crush the ball as often as it might.  At its best, Justin plays intense defense and you know what they say about defense and winning.  

     We had left Ygnacio Valley happy to make it to the “Honors” gym class at Northgate only to find almost all the other Empire club parents we know there too.  Fwiw, the physical contrast between Northgate High School and Ygnacio Valley is very striking especially given the fact that the two schools are two miles apart.  Northgate looks like a college campus with impressive main building and landscaped grounds.   Ygnacio looks as if the District hasn’t had the money to build a new high school for more than twenty years.  I’ve said this before, but California needs to show its children that high school is a priority.  If we’re going to mostly live in the suburbs, the schools should be the Cathedrals of our communities not the shopping malls that invariably appear to be our most impressive and best kept public places.  Please understand that I don’t wish to imply anything about the relative quality of Northgate and Ygnacio as schools.

     That said, as nice as the Northgate facility is as a school (they even had a dedicated snack bar), their gym is a bit compromised as a two court site.  First, the ref stand is directly under a basketball hoop that either doesn’t retract or that may retract right over the net.  This meant that the referees literally had to hunch their heads under the backboard, which may have been a good way for the refs to gauge various jump touches, but I can’t imagine that it improved their ability to survey what was happening on the court.  At one point in the semi, a ball bounced up off the backboard and through the hoop then hit the referee on the head as it went through the net.  I checked the CIF rules and apparently, this does not count as two points.  Had that been the case, El Mo might have won its first game against Campolindo had we been playing Aztec volleyball.

In general, both refs in the “Honors gym” seemed to enforce “general ed” ballhandling standards.  I don’t know what the “college prep” gym looked like except that I think College Prep the team wound up in the “general ed” gym at the end of the day.  A bigger issue with the site was that the two courts run pole to pole meaning that the refs were enforcing a “no player may set foot more than two feet outside the sideline” rule between the courts, depriving the matches of some potentially entertaining athletic plays beyond the sidelines.  It also made for a bunch of ball ons.  I don’t mean to imply that Northgate was a bad host at all, quite the opposite, but I’d argue that these are significant tradeoffs for what are supposed to be championship matches.  

     Back to the match, even though Redwood was cruising, Campolindo would send little reminders back that this wasn’t going to be easy.  In particular, Kristen Kathan would periodically send a ball cross court that would suck all the air out of the bleachers.  
Redwood had built its lead around Taylor Hadfield’s hitting and blocking.  In my own very biased opinion, Hadfield looked as good as any middle I saw in the tournament including Campo’s very good Devon Farrell.  Also Emily Botts was giving Redwood a credible answer to Campo’s incredible lefts and Carly Morrison was setting cleanly and keeping Campo just a bit off balance.  Camp closed to tie it at 15 and the two teams went point for point to 20-20.  Campo ran off three or four points, Redwood got a couple points then the game ended on a monster cross court by Kathan.  One of the joys of watching high school is watching players like Kathan who don’t have USVA or Fab 50 list approved length bodies.  Fwiw, my daughter’s coach who was a pretty good D1 hitter herself said quite voluntarily that she thought Kathan could be a perfectly effective D1 hitter.  The next game wasn’t as competitive.   I suspect that when and if St. Francis and Campolindo meet in Norcal D3, it’s going to be pretty memorable. The two teams have almost inverted strengths and weaknesses, not that they do anything less than well, but it tends to make for a great match when teams have opposite strengths.  St. Francis has a very good big setter/hitter with a great jump serve.  Campo’s best known for its leftside hitters, Kathan and Britt Erickson.

     El Molino played Deer Valley for the second time on Saturday in one of the other quarterfinals.  Deer Valley has a not very tall but extremely athletic team that features two jump servers and three to four very good arms.  In pool play, El Mo was able to take advantage of its own strong serving and Deer Valley’s ballhandling to take two surprisingly easy games.  In the first playoff, Deer Valley found its mojo and were literally teeing off from the left on Carondelet.  It’s always dangerous to play a good team twice in the same day and yesterday Deer Valley was clearly a good team.  El Molino had come off an up and down match with Justin Siena in which it blew a 24-20 lead in the first game and wound up down 18-8 in the second only to somehow pull the match out.  
Against Deer Valley, El Molino wobbled to a 25-23 win the in the first game as they made several errors and Deer Valley continued to hit well from the left.  In the second game Deer Valley broke out to a huge lead as their back row defense adjusted to the El Mo hitters.  El Mo had gotten to come from 18-24 to 21-24 when there was a controversial back line call and I broke my parent pledge of serenity about such things.  Mrs. Boris wasn’t happy with me.  El Mo had a much easier time in the third game as their middles used their height to punish Deer Valley overpasses.  

     This meant that El Mo’s next mission was to serve as sacrificial lambs to Campolindo.  Having watched much of the Redwood/Campo match, I looked at my daughter and her teammates and they had that “I just hope we don’t embarrass ourselves look” that sometimes teams get when they have to face an obviously first rate opponent.  Somewhere around 15-15, it occurred to me that it wasn’t that bad a mismatch.  El Mo starts three juniors and three sophomores and often has a rotation on the floor with no seniors at all.  Sometimes they still look very young and easy balls fall between them, free balls go into the net or out of bounds, or they run into each other in the course of a play.  Other times, the lefts look like identical hitting machines (St. Francis also has a pair of twins though one sets and the other hits), their middles get kills in bunches, etc.  This was one of those other times and the score was 23-23.  One of Campo’s middles took a big swing at a ball, the El Mo libero slid right in its path, the ball went straight up into the girders of the Northgate gym and deflected back and left.  The El Mo ds couldn’t track it.  On game point, El Mo got a clean pass and set a one to their left-handed middle, who had been effective throughout the day, only to find a double block.

Just before the second game, I happened to be close enough to hear Scott Bishop in the huddle.  I was impressed by his calm instructive style that underscored the point that you don’t have to yell to reach or motivate kids.  In the second game, Northgate, appeared to adjust its defense and got four blocks on El Mo’s first six attempts while El Mo made two unforced hitting errors.  After going down by ten points, El Mo recovered some to finish the second game 25-16 and lay claim to the distinction of having almost sort of put a scare into a really good team.  With Analy, the still mysterious Bishop O’dowd, and Campolindo all in NCS D3, the section playoffs should be very interesting.  As an El Mo parent, I just hope we get the chance to play a couple of them.  I wasn’t there, but Campolindo went on to beat Liberty relatively easily in the final.  

As I understand it, the Northgate tournament was originally expected to be 16 teams until demand bid this late season volleyball version of a pre playoff meet up to a four site 32 team affair.  Given the number of teams and the complex logistics, the tournament was run very well.  One gym went a little late so the event organizers showed flexibility by adjust the round of 8 to let the teams that finished early play one another.  This meant that Liberty played St. Francis in the quarters when one of the semis was almost over.  At the same time, it saved several dozen families from driving home at midnight.  While the tournament mostly underscored Campolindo’s top dog spot as the likely best team in any division of NCS, it may also be equally notable as a breakthrough for Maria Carrillo as a program to be reckoned with even when all the key players don’t have the same last name.  I only got to see about two minutes of Liberty this time around, but they also clearly made a statement of their own by making the final.

I hope the Northgate tournament continues and that my daughter’s team earns a couple more visits to the “honors” gym there. In the meantime, I’ve told my wife that I’m going to get my own nunchuck wielding hamster through E-bay because once that hamster left the gym, my daughter’s team lost.  

In the past, I’ve generally avoided naming players in my court reports.  That’s always flown in the face of the first law of volleyball posting that says that most parents only read this stuff to see their kids’ names on the internet.  I’ve started naming some names and those, at least for now, tend to be players I know, usually through some club association. I do try to say as little as possible about my own daughter.  She doesn’t like me writing about her per se, though she loves seeing her name in the newspaper every now and then, and there are more creative and subtle ways to brag about your own kid’s athletic prowess than writing lines of “I’m so proud of “xxxx” and so humbled to be the parent of such a great and talented….” Actually my favorite is "John Dunning calls me about my daughter every week, is that a good thing and do you think I should take this invite to play on the junior national team instead of having her go with the family for a week in Bakersfield?
While I’m proud of my child, she’s quite normal in most every way and may well never appear on any prepvolleyball list of special children even though I look for her name very anxiously whenever John puts them up.  She really likes the sport, works hard at it, and has made any number of adult and peer friendships from that involvement.  I’ve learned to remind myself that that’s plenty and wonder how many other kids there must be in each gym who one could and should say that about.

Since there were no rosters available at site, I’ve had to not name a lot of very good players who were equally or more deserving of this very limited form of attention.  However John Tawa does it, it’s a lot of work to get all those names straight.  Please feel free to fill in names or even to correct descriptions as you see fit and I’ll make the adjustments accordingly.


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