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The Calistoga High volleyball team was the only girls team to win a section title amongst the Napa Valley’s nine high schools last school year.

The Wildcats swept through the North Coast Section Division 6 playoffs, beating Jewish Community at home to take the title.

That championship banner now hangs in Calistoga’s main gym, a historical reminder of what they accomplished.

But as they progress through their 2019 season with nearly an identical roster, head coach T’Anne Butcher is discovering that the only thing harder than winning a section championship is repeating as champs.

On paper, the Wildcats have gotten off to a blazing start. With Tuesday’s 3-0 sweep of Technology High, they’re now 8-2 on the season and 3-1 in North Central League II play. But the difficulties have come on the mental side of things, specifically with motivation.

Maybe it’s a championship hangover or simply just working to get back in championship form, but Butcher has had to get her on team more this fall.

She gets it, though. It’s early in the season and her team is made up of mostly seniors and they can see light at the end of the tunnel that is high school. But she’s also beginning to see that mentality turn for the better.

“There is a little bit of that, but it’s been a little bit of a wake-up call now that we’re into league,” Butcher said Tuesday. “They’re not all going to be like tonight, where I can play everybody and have a bit of a loose game. But I think they’re ready for it. I think they actually want the challenge.

“It’s just mentally, are they there yet to step up to the challenge? I know they’ll get there, but that usually develops over the season. … We’ve already seen moments of it, where we’re like ‘Oh, you guys are actually moving and talking and playing together,’ and then seven points later it’s like ‘OK, what is happening?’ Beginning of the season. It’s been fun.”

None of this is to say that the Wildcats don’t want to repeat as section champs.

They absolutely do, and want to progress further than they did last season when they made it to the first round of the Northern California Div. 6 playoffs. With last year’s entire roster back, now with deep playoff experience under their belts, they feel that goal is within reach.

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“We definitely want to go further than we did last year,” Butcher said. “This year we want to win NorCals; it’s only three games. … That’s what we want to go for, and they’re seniors, so they want it. This is their last shot, so they want that history.”

The Calistoga roster this season is made up of returning seniors Litzy Infante, Vanesa Quiepo, Angeli Aquino, Laila Elkeshen, Jasmin Lopez and Co-Napa County Player of the Year Hayseel Barrera. Filling out the roster are junior Katie Saunders, sophomore Andrea Villasenor, and seniors Dayana Cardona and Moriah Galindo.

Obviously, with most of last year’s roster back, there’s a similar feel to this year’s iteration of the Wildcats. There’s still work to be done, seeing that it is still relatively early in the season. But Butcher has seen steady improvement through their first 10 games.

“We basically have the same team, but we’re just kind of getting our setters back up to par because they didn’t set last year. So we’re getting them going and they’re running the team, so that can be a little bumpy. But that’s happened pretty quick,” Butcher said. “They’re such a close team with a lot of seniors, so I kind of expected that.”

The Wildcats will also be playing new but familiar competition in the NCL II this season. Due to league realignments that occur every several years, this will be a return to the league that Calistoga last played in during the 2015 season.

That season was Butcher’s first leading the Wildcats, who finished 3-14 overall and 0-9 in league play. They’ve played in the NCL III, which is mostly comprised of smaller public schools like theirs, ever since.

Butcher considers the NCL II to be the tougher of the two leagues. It includes smaller private schools like Sonoma Academy and St. Vincent, teams whose players spend their offseasons honing their skills on club teams.

Not only does Butcher think this jump up in competition will benefit her team come the postseason, but she welcomes it.

“There wasn’t a whole lot of competition in our old league,” she explained. “It was like one or two good teams versus kind of the opposite now. Then when we got to playoffs, especially in Northern California, you’re playing good teams and we just hadn’t had that level of competition for so long. So I think that’s really going to benefit us when we get into the playoffs.”

More than that, she believes it’ll force her players to be more motivated as the season goes on as they look to build on what they accomplished last fall.

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Sports Reporter

Gus Morris covers St. Helena and Calistoga sports for the Napa Valley Register. Before joining the Register in 2018, he covered collegiate sports for the student publication at the University of Oregon.