R. Alan Hwang/Special to the Town Crier
Los Altos High outside hitter Christan Schaefer, a senior, is expected to play a key role on this year's volleyball team.
They haven't played a real match yet - that comes Thursday - but the girls on the Los Altos High volleyball team have already made it clear to their new coach what they want to accomplish this season.
"What's been brought to my attention is how bad the girls want to go to CCS and perform well," Christine Matteucci said. "They know they have to improve to get there, and they're focusing on that."
Getting to the Central Coast Section playoffs shouldn't be a problem for Los Altos; it's been almost an annual rite for the program since the 1980s. But the Eagles aren't content just getting there. Last year's early exit - Los Altos failed to at least reach the CCS quarterfinals for the first time since 1997 - seems to be a motivating factor for this season.
It's one of many lofty goals Los Altos has set for this season. Matteucci said her girls "want to get a bunch more wins" than last year's 23-17 squad. They also want to challenge Los Gatos for the SCVAL De Anza Division title.
"We'd like to battle with Los Gatos - they've been dominant for so many years," the coach said. "We want to go after the big guns, and the team is working toward battling with them."
If the Eagles are to do so, they will need strong efforts from their seniors. Los Altos has six seniors among its 13 players, and all of them are expected to make significant contributions.
Returning starters Christan Schaefer and twins Emily and Erin Saliba lead the senior class. They have all-league credentials and play competitive club volleyball as well.
The 5-foot-6 Saliba sisters have been on Los Altos' varsity squad since they were freshmen. Voted team captains this year, Erin plays setter and Emily outside hitter.
"Erin and Emily are good at everything," said Matteucci, hired in May to replace Dave Winn. "They have the best ball control on the team, they both have good hands, they're great passers and they know so much about the game. They're all-around good players."
Like the Salibas, Matteucci said Schaefer is drawing interest from several colleges. Outside hitter Schaefer is not only the Eagles' tallest player (5-11), but also their top hitter.
"She's great in the front row and has incredible arm swing," the coach said. "Now we're focusing on getting her speed up to par and making her more versatile, because she's going to be a target in the front row."
Schaefer's work ethic should help make that happen, according to Matteucci, who called her "a senior leader who goes all-out in every practice."
The coach also praised the determination of fellow senior Julia Chaves, a returning libero/defensive specialist adept at digging.
"The range of balls she gets to is amazing," Matteucci said, "and she's a great passer."
The coach also likes the passing skills of setter Rachel Nelson, the lone freshman on the squad. Matteucci said Nelson, who will back up Erin Saliba, is adapting quickly to the speed of the varsity game. Nelson's older sister, Michelle, is setting for UC Davis after a stellar career with the Eagles.
Two other players new to the team this year are actually familiar faces. Kristen Rowsey and Gracie Lerch were on varsity as sophomores, but they elected not to play in 2005. Lerch provides depth at libero/defensive specialist; Rowsey is in the mix at middle blocker and right-side hitter.
Among the team's juniors, Aimee Harris and Alyssa Biondi are expected to see the most action. Both are returning starters.
Harris, who transferred from St. Francis last year, plays opposite the hitter. She is known for getting the most out of her 5-foot-6 frame.
"She's small, but gets a lot of touches," Matteucci said. "She doesn't see a lot of balls, but she always find ways to get involved in the game. She's a great passer and defender."
Biondi's importance to Los Altos goes beyond her keen abilities as a passer and jumper, according to the coach.
"She's the glue on the court that keeps everyone together," Matteucci said of the outside hitter and libero/defensive specialist, "She keeps everyone talking, together and actively participating."
Two sophomores are expected to be among the active participants. The coach anticipates Erica Best and Alison Hempel to contribute at middle blocker, with Best in line for a starting job.
None of the Eagles' middle blockers stands above 5-10, which means they will have to be creative to stand up to taller teams like Los Gatos.
"We'll have to be a lot quicker to make up for the lack of height," Matteucci said, "and we'll work on jumping high."
Net play is on the top of the coach's list of concerns going into the season.
"The blocking and attacking needs to be a little tighter and more collective - a little more crisp," she said.
Matteucci hopes her team's strengths will help offset its weaknesses.
"I like our aggressive nature on passing and defense," she said. "We're really good at ball control and keeping the ball off the floor."
Matteucci should get a better feel for where her team is at after Thursday's opener, set for 7 p.m. at Soquel. The Eagles' first home match is scheduled 7 p.m. Sept. 15 against Pinewood School.Great expectations