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PC reveling in turnaround season
In one season, the Porterville College volleyball squad went from a 2-20 record to currently holding a 7-3 tally.
Last year, the team struggled to win single games. This year, they’ve swept opponents in four separate matches.
From the listless and gloomy night of 2007 to the suddenly clear and effulgent day of 2008, the differences might be found within the team’s two traveling vans.
One, with its peaceful tranquility of onlookers staring out the windows in quiet solitude preparing for the upcoming game, rivals the raucous, ear-splitting clamor of music and singing in the other.
“That’s us,” said hitter Olga Velasquez of the latter van.
And guess who’s riding at the front, leading the party?
“That’s Coach’s van,” said Laura Lopez, the Pirates’ setter and current Central Valley Conference Player of the Week, also a member of the loud van. “He dances to the music with his little head shake that he does.”
Coach Dale Henderson and his Pirates have plenty of reason to be dancing these days, coming off a sixth straight victory last Friday against archrival College of the Sequoias. In fact, the two vans personify both the team’s steely focus while remaining confidently relaxed as they avenge one loss after another.
“We’re winning and they’re getting used to it and they love the feeling,” Henderson said.
The second-year coach admitted he took over a struggling program last year that all but gave up when losing quickly became the norm.
“They just got used to losing,” Henderson said. “We would travel and they would party and have a good time, but they always knew the outcome of the game and it was frustrating at times.”
Adding that his sophomores just “weren’t up to par,” Henderson said he tinkered with some 20 different lineups before realizing “we just had to get some new freshmen and start over.”
“I knew coming in I’d have to put some work into it,” he said. “Now, to see the program turning over and changing, you can see the success. People in the community are starting to talk about Porterville volleyball and it’s exciting.”
NorCal’s 12th ranked Pirates are led by a new batch of freshmen, including Lopez and Velasquez, while balanced with a contingent of the old guard — featuring sophomores Jessica Hernandez and Sarah Jimenez — who saw firsthand the struggles of last year.
Hernandez, one of the team’s leading hitters standing just 5-foot-5 tall, met Jimenez during their days on Delano High’s volleyball roster, and the two have been through the ups and downs since. Jimenez, by the way, distinguished herself as the girls’ “mother.”
“Before road games, she’s always checking whether we have our jerseys, our shoes, our socks,” Hernandez said. “She has an extra pair in her bag for us if we forget.”
Last season, however, is one they can forget.
“Our heads are more into it this year,” Jimenez said. “We’re just more focused. After what happened last year, I think we want it more.”
Hernandez, who is currently being recruited by the University of North Carolina, agreed.
“Now we have more chemistry,” she said. “We have more power, more hitters. We started working together.”
Velasquez, who played on the Pirates’ basketball team last year but missed the deadline to play volleyball, attended the volleyball games as often as she could and attested to the individual nature of 2007’s team.
“It looked like they were playing for themselves,” she said. “I wanted to play but I had to wait.”
If it were up to Henderson, Velasquez would be suiting up for her second season this year instead of her first.
“In the spring time, after basketball practice, she started hitting some balls and I said, ‘Whoa,’” Henderson explained.
With all the components in place — Velasquez and Hernandez the hitters, Lopez the setter, and Jimenez the team’s “mom” — Henderson said this is a team he can work with. And Henderson deserves as much credit for the team’s turnaround as his players.
“He’s more intense this year,” Hernandez said, quieting her voice to keep out of the coach’s earshot. “If I’m lazy, he’ll put me on the bench.”
Lopez said the coach’s upbeat attitude rubs off on the rest of the team.
“It’s very positive,” she said. “We’ll pick each other up when we’re down or make mistakes.”
And with that, the juggernaut that are the Pirates rolls into Fresno tonight to take on No. 7 Fresno City College.
“Fresno’s pretty good,” Henderson said of the Rams, who are tied with his team for the conference’s top record. “They’re not big in size, but they’re very skilled.
“But I’ve got a good feeling about this game. If we play the way we’ve been playing, I think we can steal this one.”
Velasquez, however, neglected to hide the confidence.
“What about ‘em?” she said of Fresno.
Perhaps it’s the brashness of the “party van” talking. Or perhaps, the Pirates are just that good.