Napa High volleyball head coach Kelly Van Winden knows how sisters can lift each other up when playing on the same team.
Her own two daughters, Adlee and Torrey, starred together at Vintage High in 2012 and 2013 and led the Crushers to Monticello Empire League titles before reuniting at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo to win Big West Conference crowns the last two years.
Van Winden had that dynamic on last year’s Grizzlies squad with then-sophomore setter Mia Larson and then-junior libero Maddie Larson. The sisters helped Napa go 4-8 in the new Vine Valley Athletic League – quite an improvement over their one-win MEL campaigns each of Napa’s previous two seasons.
Now the Grizzlies have three pairs of sisters – senior setter Samantha Sowersby and junior outside hitter Shannon Sowersby, junior setter Mara Miller and junior outside hitter Angelina Miller, and the Larsons.
Actually, they sort of have Mia Larson, and that’s one reason they’re 2-3 going into Tuesday night’s VVAL opener at American Canyon (2-1). She sustained a major knee injury during club volleyball in February that required surgery, and now must help and cheer on her teammates from the bench.
“We don’t have Mia Larson on the court, and she’s the brains of the operation,” Van Winden said after a four-set loss to visiting Montgomery on Thursday. “She’s a junior that would just change the world for our team. “The two setters we have now are doing a nice job, but they’re pretty raw. They’re pretty young in that spot, in terms of understanding strategy.”
It makes it tough for junior right-side hitter Megan Singer, junior opposite hitter Kelly Leighton, and outside hitters Shannon Sowersby and Angelina Miller and seniors McCauley Smith – an All-VVAL Second Team honoree last year – and Sophia Barbieri to get in a rhythm offensively.
While Napa had to resort to a lot of soft hits or kills from the 10-foot line, Montgomery setter Laney O’Neil dished out sets that her hitters frequently bashed straight to the floor.
“They have a setter that’s signed and she’s amazing,” Van Winden said of the Panthers. “Bottom line is she’s a quarterback that knows exactly what’s going on, and we don’t have that. We struggle with distributing the ball where it needs to go at the right time. It’s OK. Our setters are getting better.
Smith and Maddie Larson are not only the team captains, but also the Grizzlies’ best servers.
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“They bring a lot of energy and spice to the game, and I think they are trying to bring people with them,” Van Winden said. “Have they yet? I’m not sure. But they’re really good role models, and they run the show from the back line.”
Napa has won the first set in four of its five matches so far, winning the second one in a 3-1 loss to Vanden.
“Nobody expects us to come out and play hard,” Van Winden said. “When we wake the sleeping giant, (the opponents) come back and they play harder and we get tested more. That’s what we want. Now, it’s how do we respond to the test? (Against Montgomery) we were right there. But under pressure, we have some work to do. We are learning and getting better every time. If we can keep doing that, I’m good.”
The Grizzlies’ defense has been solid with junior middle blockers Diana Calderon-Montanez and Aliyah Aguire and sophomore defensive specialist Olivia Vavricka.
It’s the offense that they’ve had to practice, and they’ve gone back and forth between using the single-setter 5-1 offense and the two-setter 6-2 scheme.
“We’re spending a lot of time on offense,” Van Winden said. “We were a 6-2 and it wasn’t going so well, so changed it to a 5-1, and that didn’t look so good, so we’re back to a 6-2. We’re gonna need two setters all year. They’re both learning on their feet. They’re both doing a good job. It’s just not at a level where we’re feeding our hitters consistently. Our hitters struggled (against Montgomery) a little, too.
But it’s been a fun, family affair for half the team.
“All of the sisters are close to each other. They come to practice together, they leave practice together, and they ‘pepper’ together,” Van Winden said of the drill that involves two players hitting and digging with each other. “I have to tell them ‘You guys have to pepper with other people,’ because that’s all they do. So we assign pepper partners. But they get along and are lovely. It’s really cool. Both my daughters played at Cal Poly together, and there’s something magical about that.
“I feel very sad for Mia because this is her sister’s senior year and they would have been on the court together (if Mia were healthy). It’s very sad because together they have a perfect dynamic.”