WATSONVILLE — The last time the Pajaro Valley High girl’s volleyball team tasted the Central Coast Section playoffs, Grizzlies’ head coach Jamie Tsuji was playing against it as a junior at Monte Vista Christian.
“I remember those girls. They were tough to play against,” said Tsuji, who took over the program after graduating from the Watsonville-based private school in 2011. “They were all the same player. They moved all as one. They wouldn’t let the ball touch the floor. They were annoying to play against. You couldn’t tire them out.”
Eight years later, Tsuji is trying to recapture the magic of the 2009 team, which also captured the program’s first and only league championship.
At 4-0, Pajaro Valley is off to its best start in program history and has shown no signs of slowing. The Grizzlies return all nine players from last year’s squad, which won just four games in total but learned a valuable lesson while taking its lumps.
“We needed to trust each other more and play more as a team,” said senior setter Jaqui Lopez. “We do that now. Since it’s the same girls [as last year] we know each other better. We know how to play together.”
All nine have shown the dedication to the program in the summer which had been lacking over the last decade, according to Tsuji. Senior defensive specialist Natalia Gallegos, especially, refined her game during the break by showing up to open gyms four times a week. She hardly saw the court last season but will be one of the program’s strongest players this campaign.
“You look at how much she improved individually, it’s impressive,” Tsuji said. “I told her that I needed her to step up because there was no one else behind her and she did. She really made the effort to get better… She’s passing dimes all the time now.”
Natalie Sanchez, Samantha Valdivia and Karina Gonzalez join Gallegos and Lopez as senior leaders for a tight squad that has the realistic chance of finishing within the top three in the Monterey Bay League Pacific division this season. It won’t be easy with six other schools — Seaside High, North Salinas High, Monterey High, North Monterey County High, Watsonville High and Gilroy High — vying for the top spots but the leadership, work ethic and talent have made a believer out of Tsuji.
“Finishing above .500 and making CCS is always the goal but some years you have to be realistic with yourself,” Tsuji said. “This year, I don’t think that CCS is not a realistic goal for us. Being over .500 was our goal for the season but after the way we started, the girls started asking questions about CCS… I think that’s a good thing. We haven’t had those types of goals around here in a while.”
Helping the cause is sophomore outside hitter Julie Che, who has paced the Grizzlies in kills in each of their four preseason wins. Che is not the biggest but her swings, which are more controlled than last year, might be the strongest in the league.
“She’s powerful and she does anything we tell her to do,” Lopez said.
The Grizzlies have also benefited from having a handful of members from the boy’s team, which won its first-ever league championship and advanced to the CCS playoffs for the second straight season last spring, fill in as bodies in practice. Their help has not only allowed Tsuji to run full 6-on-6 practices but it has also aided in the girl’s defensive development.
“We’re lucky that our guys come out and help — they’re invaluable,” said Tsuji, who explained that Athletic Director Joe Manfre allowed the boys to lend a hand three years ago. “Ever since then, I’ve seen huge improvements in all our girls.”
But, Tsuji said, the Grizzlies still have a long way to go if they want to meet their goal of earning their second-ever CCS playoff berth.
Defensive coverage is at the top of the to-do list of improvements. Even in their most trying years, the Grizzlies were respected for their defensive effort. It didn’t matter if they were winning or losing, if Pajaro Valley was on the court, points were tough to come by. Tsuji said the last couple of teams haven’t lived up to that reputation and she’s not happy about it.
“We lost that somewhere along the way,” Tsuji said. “We’re going to get it back this year.”
Gallegos and Co. said that, among other things, it will make the Grizzlies hum.
“Nothing touches the ground,” Gallegos said.
The hot start is uncharted waters for the Grizzlies, who have not won more than five games in a season this decade. Tsuji said she hasn’t had a problem with keeping her girls even-keeled through the short winning streak. The coach said that her girls are doing a great job of not worrying about the wins and losses at this time of the year. Even if the wins are something the program has not seen in a long time.
“We just want to keep pushing,” Gallegos said. “We’re not thinking about anything else right now. We want to keep winning.”