WATSONVILLE — Last season Tom Schatz was comfortable in his first year as the head coach of the Watsonville High girl’s volleyball program. He could motivate the girls, correct them when needed and crack plenty of corny jokes.

Yet there was still a small barrier between him and his players.

That minuscule obstacle is gone.

“The biggest difference is I know the kids now,” said Schatz, who took over for former head coach Sue Jeske last season. “Last year, right, wrong or indifferent, I felt like it was still Sue’s team. I feel like these are my kids now so I think that makes things easier.”

Schatz and his players are all on the same page and that is a good thing considering the massive turnover from last year’s team.

Senior libero Alexis Pena is the lone returning starter from a squad that went 6-6 in Monterey Bay League Pacific division play and narrowly missed the Central Coast Section playoffs for the sixth straight season. Senior outside Anissa Diaz, who sparingly saw the court last season, is also a returning senior.

The Wildcatz do have eight seniors and three juniors but all are still adjusting to the speed and expectations of the varsity level.

The talent is there, Schatz said, but the whether it can all mesh in time to make a run at the MBL-Pacific division title is still a question mark.

“We have a good mix but the only returner we have is Alexis,” Schatz said. “That’s going to be a big deal. We’re still waiting for some leaders to emerge.”

And that leadership role isn’t solely reserved for seniors and juniors.

Sophomore opposite Camila Cardenas has turned heads with her powerful left-handed swings during the early days of practice. Her teammates say she will be a big asset to the squad if she can continue to hammer away and improve.

“Her hits are like fire,” said junior outside Naomi Benitez. “She’s crazy good.”

Schatz said Cardenas, who last year played at the junior varsity level as a freshman, has also impressed him.

“I feel confident in saying that if we didn’t have so many seniors last year, she would’ve been on varsity…She’s definitely a player,” the coach said. “Camila is going to be on the court more than she is off. They look at her. The whole team does. We just have to get her to step up. Maybe she’s the leader as a sophomore? I don’t know yet.”

Per usual, Watsonville does not have much height other than 5-foot-11-inch senior middle blocker Julisa Vega but the Wildcatz make up for their diminutive size with their quickness in the back row.

An All-MBL-Pacific division Second-Team selection last season, Pena sets the tone for the defensive unit which will also feature senior defensive specialist Chely Hernandez, among others. Pena praised her team’s defense but also said the Wildcatz have a handful of players that can put the ball away and a pair of setters in senior Camila Milanes and junior Jasmine Jimenez that could start for any team in the league.

“Our defense is definitely good but our offense is a lot better this year, we feel like we have some pretty strong hitters,” Pena said.

Along with Cardenas and Benitez, senior outside hitter Evelyn Rios, who took last year off to focus on basketball, will get plenty of swings at the ball. Rios can fly and is the Wildcatz’s most consistent hitter in the lineup.

“When we need that side out,” Rios said, “we can get it. Everyone has really stepped up to being on varsity.”

Watsonville started the season off with a three-set sweep of Marina High on Thursday and has nearly three full weeks of tune-ups before it starts its league season on Sept. 12 at North Monterey County High.

The Wildcatz will also compete against Gilroy High, Monterey High, North Salinas High, Seaside High and cross-city rival Pajaro Valley High in the Pacific division.

Monterey is the newcomer after finishing second-to-last in the Gabilan division and swapping spots with Pacific division champ Alisal High.

After faring well against Pacific division squads in non-league play last season, Monterey figures to be one of the favorites to grab the league title. Last season’s second-place finisher North Salinas and Seaside and Gilroy, whom tied for third, are also believed to be in the hunt.

Watsonville will have its work cut out for it trying to compete for the title but the players said the newfound chemistry between this year’s group is leading them in the right direction.

“This year we’re just trying to have a better attitude that last year,” Pena said. “It seems like it’s working. We’re doing pretty good.”

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