Sports

St. Francis braces for battle in rugged WCAL


Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
Junior outside hitter Mollie Ebertin leads the Lancers in kills so far this season.

Volleyball players in the West Catholic Athletic League ought to receive an “I Survived the WCAL” T-shirt at the end of the season. The league is as tough – if not tougher than – any in Northern California.

“Everyone is very good,” said St. Francis High girls coach Mike Rubin, whose Lancers begin WCAL play today. “Three teams from our league won state titles last year – that’s unheard of.”

Expect more of the same this season.

Four-time defending state Division II champion Mitty – which St. Francis is scheduled to host 6:30 p.m. today – ranks 12th in the nation. Reigning state Division III champ Valley Christian, a team the Lancers are slated to visit a week from today, is off to a 10-1 start.

“Mitty is the team to beat (in league),” Rubin said, “but Valley Christian has a lot of strong returning players from that state championship team.”

Both squads beat St. Francis last year – as did another WCAL power, Presentation, which ended the Lancers’ season in the Central Coast Section Division II semifinals. St. Francis went 23-12 overall and finished sixth in what was a seven-team league (Division IV state champ Notre Dame-Belmont has since moved to the West Bay Athletic League).

Rubin expects bigger things from his team this season.

“Our main goal is to finish better than last year,” he said. “This year, we want to make the CCS finals and go to the state tournament.”

Although the Lancers lost both all-league players (outside hitters Jenna Adams and Carly Deale) to graduation, their chances of advancing may have improved now that the CCS has added an Open Division to the playoffs. A CCS committee will subjectively choose the best eight teams, regardless of school size, to play in the Open. Only half of those teams can come from the same league, but all eight are guaranteed a berth in the Northern California playoffs. So if St. Francis earns a spot, it will make state; if not, the Lancers would surely have an easier road to the CCS Division II final with juggernauts like Mitty bumped up to the Open.

While Rubin said he has “mixed feelings” about the new division, the coach is more concerned with improving the St. Francis program.

“My focus is on making the team culture a better one,” he said. “I want it to be a place where players can grow and reach their potential.”

The Lancers seem to have room to grow; seven of their 13 players are underclassmen. Six of the girls are returnees, though only Mollie Ebertin and Amanda Serex were full-time starters last season.

Outside hitter Ebertin tops the team in kills.

“She’s a big, physical outside,” Rubin said of the 6-foot-1 junior, an early commit to USC to play sand volleyball. “She carries most of the offensive load, but a lot of other players contribute, too.”

Middle blocker Serex helps St. Francis in myriad ways.

“She’s a good leader who buys into what we’re trying to do,” Rubin said of the 6-1 senior. “She’s our best point-scoring middle and a good blocker who gives us a chance against stronger hitters.”

Julia Palomba is versatile as well – the 5-11 junior splits time at setter and middle blocker in the Lancers’ 6-2 offense.

“We use her in a lot of different ways,” Rubin said. “We depend on her crafty play and leadership.”

Brigitte Canty and Julia Bounds are the starters at opposite hitter. Both are seniors.

The 5-10 Canty was a part-time starter last year. Rubin described her as “a very smart player with good ball control.” Canty is also headed to USC next year to play sand volleyball.

Bounds is new to the team, having spent the past three falls running cross-country.

“She kills it in conditioning,” Rubin said, “and she’s a good competitor.”

The 6-1 Bounds, a longtime club volleyball player, leads the Lancers in aces and ranks second in kills. She notched eight kills in St. Francis’ home sweep of Harker last week.

The win put the Lancers’ overall record at 10-5 as they embark on their league slate.

“We’ve had some ups and downs,” Rubin said. “We’ve had a lot of close losses – we haven’t been blown out of the water.”

The coach added that he hopes “every loss is a learning opportunity” and that his team will “keep getting better.”

The Lancers’ best wins, according to Rubin, came against San Benito at the season-opening Spikefest I tournament Aug. 27 and versus Redwood (Larkspur) at the Christine Craft Memorial Tournament Sept. 10. The Lancers finished seventh out of the 12 teams at the Craft tourney – held at Oak Ridge High in El Dorado Hills – which the coach said featured several strong teams.

With only five league matches (the WCAL plays a single round-robin format), St. Francis has two more tournaments on its schedule.

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