Kristen Iordanova thought this year’s Napa Valley College volleyball team would contend for the Bay Valley Conference title again, even with few players back from last year’s runner-up.

One of the three who did come back as sophomores, Vintage High graduate Mariah Leal, had to redshirt due to injury, as did freshman standout Jaelynn Certeza-Dominguez of Armijo.

The other two sophomores, American Canyon alum Claudine Basco and Bethel product Megan Corpuz, would lead the team in the back row. A 2017 American Canyon alumna, freshman Alexia Stewart, was a leader in the front row despite being one of only four members of the 13-player squad without club experience.

Iordanova – who is assisted by her husband, Danko Iordanov – saw her team finish right in the middle of the nine-school BVC pack in fifth place. The Storm went 8-8, beating all the teams above them in the standings and losing to all the ones below them, and 8-17 overall.

“We had high hopes for them, but we lost a lot of people to injuries,” Iordanova said after a three-set loss to visiting Los Medanos on Nov. 6. “We’re proud of how they’ve been able to adapt and deal with it. They’ve had to move around a lot – one of the middles is actually a setter, and Claudine is actually a libero; I made that switch halfway through conference. Candice Turk started out as a middle and we moved her to opposite. So they’re not playing where they’re used to playing.

“We are capable of hanging with these teams (like LMC) but at some point they’re more physical than we are and it kinda wears us down. We’re small but have a lot of heart. There are moments where they show a lot of grit and real skill.”

Stewart finished third on the team in kills with 124, behind club players Turk, who is out of St. Patrick-St. Vincent, and Malia Johnson, a Vanden product. Stewart, who finished fifth on the team in service aces (20) and digs (74), started playing the game as a freshman at American Canyon under then-JV coach Katy Maligie.

“She is the one who basically taught me the fundamentals of volleyball,” Stewart said. “That was my first year of volleyball. I never thought I would play in college.”

Stewart was one of four sophomores Maligie brought up when she took over the varsity in 2014, and helped the Wolves secure their first-ever Sac-Joaquin Section playoff berths as a sophomore and junior.

“I’ve improved lot since high school, especially my passing,” she said. “I plan to come back. I really don’t see myself going to school without playing volleyball because I’ve done it since I was a freshman in high school. I work part-time, but Coach works with my schedule and if I need help in school. It’s not as hard (to balance everything) as I thought it would be and that’s because of the support I have from my team and my coaches.”

Stewart plans to major in nursing.

“Alexia is a little spitfire with a lot of energy. She’s catching up real quick,” Iordanova said. “She was like a lot of players, who had to step into roles a lot sooner than I thought they were going to originally. But it shows their resilience, how tough they are.”

Basco, who played libero most of the season, led the Storm with 259 digs, two more than Johnson. Basco was second in service aces with 30, behind Johnson’s 39, and second in assists with 37 behind setter Kayse Huettis (427), and fifth in kills with 42.

Basco said the only challenge to coming back for a second season at NVC was not knowing who her teammates would be.

“It’s harder playing with a new team, adjusting to new people, but that’s life,” she said.

November 6 was Sophomore Day for Basco and Corpuz, a psychology major who hopes to transfer to San Jose State, UC Berkeley or UC San Diego.

Corpuz said she wanted to play another year of NVC volleyball because it helps her keep up in her classes.

“You need the grades to be able to play, so it kind of motivates you. In my opinion, if you weren’t playing, you wouldn’t have anything to motivate you other than yourself, so that motivated me a lot,” she said. “Besides, when I would talk to my family, they would say ‘Think about when you finish school, you’ll be working for the rest of your life, so you won’t get these moments back.’

“Even though we haven’t won that many games, it’s a lot more than that. We got closer to even the people we just met at the beginning of fall.”

Added Basco, “There have definitely been moments we’ve enjoyed, not only games but bus rides all over the place, and we all hang out together outside of volleyball.”

Basco, also a psychology major, wants to go to UC Santa Cruz or a school in Louisiana – or wherever she can continue to play volleyball.

“I’m looking forward to doing the Sophomore Showcase,” she said of the annual scouting event set Dec. 3 at Solano Community College. “If that goes well, I’ll go wherever they sign me.”

Basco hopes Stewart and the other freshmen return to help NVC try to win its first conference title since 2011.

“I want them to continue playing because it would suck to start freshmen year after year. They’re trying to build a program here,” Basco said. “The coaches definitely work on recruiting, which we definitely appreciate because otherwise we probably wouldn’t have had a team this year. During spring, there were only like four of us, three sometimes during summer.”

“I think it was because they were finishing up club,” Corpuz said. “But they’ll definitely regret it if they don’t keep playing.”

Iordanova was disappointed that so few came back after her first NVC team tied Solano for second place at 9-3 in the NVC, but understood.

“Life happens,” she said. “Some of them did not stay in school. We always welcome them back if they want to come back – at least to go to school, because that is the priority.”

The coach said the wildfires that canceled two weeks of October practices and games also kept her from recruiting as much as she wanted at local high school matches because the Storm were so busy making up canceled matches afterward.

But the team handled the fire situation well, Iordanova said, coming to help when the NVC gym became an evacuation center.

“They’re good girls. They have a lot of character. It’ll serve them well next year if they return, and in life in general,” she said. “They’re all really good students, too, and they’re close-knit together. They get along really well. I think that they’ll stay bonded over the spring.”

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Sports Reporter

Andy Wilcox is a sportswriter-photographer for the Napa Valley Register. He's had similar roles in Walnut Creek, Grass Valley, Auburn, Tracy and Patterson. He grew up in Ohio. His wife, Laura, is a pastry chef. He also enjoys playing guitar and piano.