Former Balers help Rams make history

Former Balers standout Lex Chavarria teamed up with sister Noel to win a match in the state beach volleyball championships. Photo by Chris Spence.

The Gavilan College volleyball program has never been better, making history year after year. Last November, the indoor team advanced to the State Final Eight for the second time in three years and won a match at that stage for the first time in program history. On the beach this season, the Rams qualified to the State Championships, also a first for the program.

By accomplishing both, Gavilan was one of only three community colleges in California—Irvine Valley and El Camino being the others—that had their indoor and outdoor volleyball teams make the State Championships. Quite a feat indeed. To give perspective on how impressive that accomplishment is, there are 95 community colleges with indoor programs and 40 to 45 with beach volleyball programs.

Only six teams advance to the beach volleyball state tournament, four from Southern California and two from Northern California. The Rams got it done with a true team effort, as they had none of their two-women squads advance to the Pairs State Championship, the first time in the five-year history of beach volleyball at the California community college level that Gavilan didn’t have a duo competing in the Pairs Tournament.

For a team to qualify for the State Championships and not have a single pairs team in the regional field speaks volumes of a deep roster filled with quality players. In the team state championships, the Rams lost to Grossmont 4-1 and El Camino 3-2 on May 9 in Chula Vista to close out a remarkable season.

“It’s the first in the five year history of the event that a team qualified without having one of its pairs qualifying,” Rams coach Kevin Kramer said. “It really kind of shows you the depth of the team and how important they are to each other. It’s kind of been a group effort all year long.”

Nowhere was that more apparent than in the NorCal Finals against West Valley on May 1. Gavilan prevailed, 3-2, earning wins from its No. 4 and 5 teams in Lex Chavarria and Noel Chavarria and Evelyn Clonts and Melissa Zanotto, respectively. The No. 4 and 5 matches were the first to go on the courts, so even before the Rams top three squads took to the court, they were up 2-0 and needed to win just one of the three remaining matches to seal the victory.

That was easier said than done considering West Valley has the top pairs team in Northern California playing at the No. 1 spot, and tough teams at the two and three positions as well. However, Katia Dizon, a former Anzar High standout, and partner Keona Stopper beat their West Valley counterparts at the No. 2 position, 21-12, 21-5 to clinch the necessary three points.

In the previous round, the Rams beat Fresno City College by the identical 3-2 score. The three teams were pretty familiar with each other, as they had battled all season taking turns beating each other.

“We (all of the coaches from each program) were joking all year long that any time the three of us get together, it’s a 50/50 crapshoot of who comes out on top,” Kramer said. “We’re lucky this time it was us.”

Sarah Weiby, a former Gilroy High standout, and partner Mikeila Banda played at the No. 1 spot against West Valley, while Katelyn Viray, a former Christopher High standout, and partner Flo Tukuaoga played the No. 3 position. The rest of the roster includes Adrianne Orahood, Zoe Harada and Evelyn Clonts. All of these players with the exception of Stopper were on the indoor team, no small feat considering the outdoor game requires a greater overall skill set, Kramer said.

“In the indoor game, you can get away from being a one-dimensional player,” he said. “On the beach, you kind of have to be good at everything (to excel). It demands a lot that maybe the indoor game doesn’t demand.”

Weiby, who is one of the top two or three beach volleyball players at the school but probably in the range of being the sixth to 10th best indoor player, has an all-around skill set that makes her a formidable talent in both games, especially the beach.

“For the indoor team, my teammates always made a joke because I jumped from position to position,” she said. “They would say I was versatile, and I think that helps out on the beach because I have different skill sets which you really need.”

The beach game differs from the indoor game in one huge aspect: coaching is limited, putting the onus on the players to make in-game adjustments and tactical decisions. Pairs are allowed only one timeout to go along with a technical timeout in each set when the scores add up to 21. Coaches are actually prohibited from doing any type of coaching unless it’s in a timeout situation.

“It’s a lot more on the player and you seeing things and making the adjustments,” Weiby said. “Last year was my first year playing beach, and it was hard not having the coaches’ input in the game. But a year later we all have more experience and are confident we can make the right decisions.”

Then there’s the inexact science of maximizing the potential of each player by putting them with a partner that will enhance their game, and vice versa. Weiby and Dizon were partners earlier in the season before it was decided that Banda and Weiby would form a team along with Dizon and Stopper. In each situation, the players must support each other to lift their play to a higher level.

“It’s about meshing really well and motivating each other,” Weiby said. “If she digs a ball up, I want to get to it and make sure it gets back over the net. We work for each other.”

The culture of the Gavilan volleyball program features accountability, hard work, discipline and a desire to grow and improve.

“Everyone is really self-motivated and self-driven,” Weiby said. “I think Kevin is a huge part of that. Everyone works hard because they see the dedication he puts in, and I think that is the root (to the sustained success of the program). I think everyone wants to match that intensity and energy, and it pushes everyone to be better. It’s crazy to see him coaching softball during the same season, but I know it’s something he enjoys doing even though it’s pretty stressful.”

Kramer emphasized that it was the assistant coaches who did a lot of the heavy lifting for the program this season since he had double duty coaching the softball team concurrently with beach volleyball. Kramer said four assistants helped out immensely, including former Balers standout Isaiah Acfalle, who did the majority of the coaching on the days Kramer was coaching softball; Chris Spence, who has been with Kramer for all 12 of his years at Gavilan; Brian Calimpong, who directs the team’s operations; and Ramon Rodriguez, the Christopher High girls volleyball coach.

Blending an excellent coaching staff along with talented and hard working players, it’s no wonder Gavilan’s volleyball program continually reaches new heights. The program has got some serious mojo, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the indoor or beach program—or both—win a state title within the next several years. When the Rams lost in the State Championships last week, the emotion was palpable.

“It was very emotional for everyone because this was our last game together as a team,” said Dizon, who recently committed to play beach volleyball for Ottawa University in Arizona. “We all realized as a whole this was it and our last hurrah. This exact group will never play together again.”

And what a dynamic group it’s been. Camille Finley, who played on the indoor team last season, transferred to Long Beach State in January to compete on the track and field team. The following have all either signed or committed to play at the four-year level: Weiby to Niagara University (indoor); Viray to Ottawa (beach); Lex Chavarria to Peru State in Nebraska (indoor); and Banda and Clonts will stay teammates next season as they have committed to play for Chico State’s indoor team.

Beach volleyball is exploding in popularity at all levels, especially in college. Dizon, like most of her teammates, had never played competitive beach volleyball until coming to Gavilan. Her partner, Stopper, played at Holy Names University and the two meshed to form a cohesive unit.

“We communicated well and really talked through every single play,” said Dizon, one of the most productive players in Anzar High history. “That is the most important thing because the beach game is more of a mental game. I love it because playing beach has helped me grow as a person in that I had to figure out strategies on the court and there is more independence.”

Although height plays a factor in the beach game, it’s not the end all, be all to success. Stopper is 5-foot-4 and Dizon is perhaps a shade taller than 5-6. In the beach game, one player usually stays at the net (designated as the big) and one in the back (the little). Dizon, who played the little last season, made the transition to the big this year. Despite facing taller players, Dizon more than held her own at the net.

“I was still able to get up there and make some blocks,” she said.

When Dizon graduated from Anzar High two years ago, she had no idea on the next step she wanted to take in life. After two amazing years at Gavilan both athletically and academically, she has direction.

“Gavilan definitely helped shape who I am,” she said. “I’m ready to go on to the next chapter in my life.”

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