WATSONVILLE — With all but one starter returning, the 2017 edition of the St. Francis High girl’s volleyball team will look very similar to last season’s.

The only visible difference will be the person roaming the sidelines.

Greg Ryan is the new head coach at St. Francis, replacing former coach Diana Inman, who was let go after three seasons at the helm.

Ryan has never coached at the high school level but has served as an assistant for a club volleyball program and was also the head coach of the middle school team at St. Mary’s School in Gilroy for three years.

He is the program’s seventh coach since Denise Sheldon stepped down following the 2008 season.

Ryan, whose daughter, Audrey, is the team’s senior setter, said he took over the team in late July after the program failed to find a candidate to fill the position.  

“The search was just coming up empty and it was do-or-die time so I stepped up and found out a way to make it work,” Ryan said.

The expectations are as high as ever for the Sharks, even with the coaching change.

The graduation of 5-foot-11-inch middle blocker Laura Martinelli left the Sharks a bit small at the net but several players from the 12-person roster have stepped up to fill her vacancy.

Deadly senior outside hitters Emma Ryan and Samantha Bellucci, two of the Sharks’ eight seniors, are both back and are much improved with their swings. Senior middle blocker Madison Orradre also returns as a better athlete along with senior defensive specialists Hailey DiRienzo and Elena Gonzalez, senior right side Viktoria Tripp and senior libero Akemi Ito.

Audrey Ryan, who, like Emma Ryan and Bellucci, is in her fourth varsity season, makes the whole operation go from the setter position and has settled into a bigger leadership role in her final season.

“I’ve felt it over the summer,” Ryan said. “I realized like, ‘wow, these are all my classmates.’ We’re a small school so I’m cool with everyone. It’s our team. We’re the leaders. We’re the seniors. We have a couple of juniors and we love them, of course. I want to make it a fun year because it’s our last year together.”

The Sharks have also received a surprise boost from hardworking junior middle blocker, Tanya Gallo, who is 5-foot-10 and last year played at the junior varsity level.

“We really needed her to step up and she did,” coach Ryan said. “She came to almost every summer workout and really put a lot of effort into learning how to play middle at the varsity level. I’m really pleased with her and I look for her to do some good things.”

Last year was hailed as the season the Sharks would return to prominence in the Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League landscape and also threaten to capture the program’s second-ever Central Coast Section championship. St. Francis did improve from previous seasons, notching double-digit wins for the first time since 2009, but finished under .500 overall and went just 5-9 in SCCAL action.

The Sharks showed short flashes of their potential throughout the season but were never able to sustain the success for more than a few sets. They qualified for the CCS Division V playoffs for the second straight year but were bounced in the first round once again.

So the Sharks return with the up-and-down 2016 season on their minds. This year’s squad is hoping to redeem itself after a somewhat disappointing finish to the previous campaign.

“We thought it was the year but it didn’t really work out in our favor,” said Emma Ryan, who was named an All-SCCAL Second Team selection last season. “We’ve learned from the experience and we have a stronger drive now that we’ve been there and we had the opportunity but we just fell short. I think this year we’ll be able to obtain that goal.”

The ultimate goal? The team has yet to come to a consensus. But the Sharks said they believe they have the potential to do something special. Just how special, they said, would be determined by their progress leading up to their SCCAL opener against Harbor High on Sept. 12.

“I feel like last year we started off just OK and we stayed stagnant,” Audrey Ryan said. “This year I want to keep learning and keep improving from where we were at the beginning. I want to be able to look back at one of our first games and say maybe we could’ve won that game before the end of the season.”

So far, Ryan has put his new team through a boot camp full of fundamentals. The coach wants his group to be the best passing team in the league. The Sharks have always struggled with passing in the past while SCCAL powers Harbor, Soquel High and Aptos High, which has won the league four years running, have reigned supreme.

“We appreciate him being here,” Emma Ryan said of her new coach. “He knows a lot about the game and he’s really teaching us. We’ve progressed well over the past few weeks.”

Added Audrey Ryan: “We’ve gone back to the basics. Just passing, passing, passing, all the time. And I think it’s really worked.”

St. Francis opens its season today at home against Christopher High at 6:30 p.m.

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