Wed11262014

Sports

Panthers cool off after red-hot start, but coach excited by improvement


Photo By: Elliott Burr/Special to the Town Crier
Photo Elliott Burr/Special To The Town Crier

Lindsay Riches is one of three seniors on the Pinewood School girls volleyball team.

It turns out Pinewood School girls volleyball coach Michael Shorts had good reason to be cautiously optimistic about his team’s fast start.

After winning five out of six matches to open the season, the Panthers were slowed by a pair of daunting speed bumps – Crystal Springs Uplands and Harker – as they embarked on their West Bay Athletic League Skyline Division schedule. Both teams swept Pinewood last week.

“League play turned out to be much tougher than our preseason competition,” Shorts said.

Which is exactly what the team’s first-year coach was afraid of. Before the opener, Shorts predicted that the Skyline Division would be a “very tough league” and expected both Crystal Springs (8-1 overall) and Harker (5-1) to be formidable foes.

And he wasn’t about to declare his squad the favorite to finish first.

“I don’t want us to get ahead of ourselves,” Shorts said after Pinewood swept San Jose High the day before league began. “The focus is on being the best team we can be – the wins and losses will take care of themselves.”

Wins weren’t a problem for the Panthers early on. After opening with a five-game loss at San Jose, Pinewood peeled off five consecutive victories – three via sweeps, including the rematch with visiting San Jose Sept. 18.

“The amount of improvement by the players is really dramatic,” Shorts said. “The biggest difference (between the previous meeting with San Jose) was that we really worked hard on reducing the number of unforced errors we made as a team. We’ve put a large emphasis on that.”

After making 41 hitting errors in the opener, Pinewood made just 13 in last week’s win.

“That’s encouraging,” Shorts said. “It shows the focus of the players in practice and that they’re buying in.”

Three of the team’s nine players are freshmen – Lauren Loudermilk and twins Mehra and Tehmi den Braven.

“This year we have a terrific freshman class,” Shorts said. “They’re really good athletes with an incredible work ethic.”

The 5-foot-6 Loudermilk starts at setter and the 5-11 Mehra den Braven at outside hitter, while the 5-6 Tehmi den Braven sees action at opposite hitter and libero. The coached called Loudermilk “probably the most enthusiastic player on the court,” described Mehra den Braven as “an amazing all-around volleyball player” and said Tehmi den Braven has “solidified our defense.”

Mehra den Braven leads the team in kills, notching a season-high 20 last week against San Jose, a match in which her sister served the final nine points.

The Panthers’ three seniors – starters Chloe Miller (opposite hitter), Lindsay Riches (outside hitter) and Gabrielle Wainwright (middle blocker) – are the team captains. Shorts raved about the 5-6 Miller’s jump serve, praised the 5-7 Riches’ all-around game and noted that the 5-10 Wainwright recorded a season-high eight kills in the win over San Jose.

Wainwright teams with Karalena Davis at middle blocker, a 5-8 junior who the coach described as a “good hitter.”

The mix of young and experienced players has resulted in stellar team chemistry, according to the coach.

“The senior leadership and freshmen enthusiasm is feeding on each other,” Shorts said. “There’s good team spirit and team play.”

But do the Panthers have what it takes to compete for the division title and their first Central Coast Section playoff appearance in six years?

“It’s hard to tell,” the coach said. “It’s difficult to make it from the lower division (of the WBAL); only the winner is guaranteed to go. But that’s not my focus – I want them to play to the best of their ability and continue to improve. The playoffs would be the fruit of their labor if they do the right things.”

Pinewood is scheduled to host Mercy-Burlingame 5:45 p.m. Thursday.

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