Meghan Popma grew up with two older brothers who never took it easy on her. The Gilroy High senior credits her upbringing for helping her to develop into a bona-fide impact outside hitter at the high school level.
“My brothers taught me how to be tough,” Popma said. “I’d go throw the football with them or play soccer, and they taught me to always stand up for myself.”
The Mustangs are standing tall this season. They entered the week at 11-5 overall and 4-0 in the Pacific Coast League’s Cypress Division, which has pleased coach Bailie Carpenter.
“So far I’ve been really impressed with the team,” she said. “The biggest highlight for me is how everyone is getting along so well together. You can see on the court that they’re functioning as one, which has been a problem for us in the past. But this year we’ve completely turned things around.”
In captains Margo Clonts, Maggie Brinkman and Popma, Gilroy has three players who lead by example. Clonts, a senior middle hitter, makes an impact with her ability to hit the ball with authority and block attacks.
“She’s a force to be reckoned with,” Carpenter said. “Most teams struggle defending strong middles, and Margo does not make it easy for the other team to pick up balls on her.”
Brinkman, a senior outside hitter, possesses a strong swing and has made tremendous improvement since her freshman year.
“She’s one of those athletes who want to learn how to do new skills and is open to critique,” Carpenter said.
Even though Popma plays outside hitter, her game is versatile enough that she played setter in a match earlier in the season against North Salinas.
“I want to be the best teammate I can be,” she said. “I just needed to step up and take that role for that particular day. I’ve been thrown in every position possible (since I started playing), so it wasn’t a shock to me.”
Offensively, Popma feels like she’s become a smarter hitter, as tips and a variety of finesse shots have become a part of her arsenal.
“I don’t try to kill it every time because that won’t work,” she said.
The Mustangs have a solid setter in junior Amaya Raoof, who passes well and keeps the team’s offense in rhythm. Ella Blank, a junior libero, is the de facto captain of the back row with her ability to keep rallies alive and everyone communicating.
“Ella runs the back row and she is there every time making sure to getting balls up and running into chairs and doing everything in her power to make sure no ball drops,” Carpenter said. “She’s always being loud and talking up the team and trying to get them excited. That’s being a good leader.”
In a three-game sweep over Pajaro Valley on Sept. 19, Clonts and Brinkman led the team with 13 kills apiece, and Raoof pumped out 33 assists. Brinkman also had 12 digs and two service aces, displaying her strong all-around game. Popma had five service aces and Blank had 23 digs.
A year ago, Gilroy didn’t have the on-court chemistry to achieve its potential. The Mustangs have done a 180-degree turnaround this season, and the results are evident.
“This year we definitely have a bond that can’t be broken,” Popma said. “We all accept each other more about our decisions, and things have really clicked for us this year. With that our team goal is to win league and strive to win a CCS title.”
Said Carpenter: “Last year our biggest issue was a lack of communication. This year they came in with the goal of playing together, and they’ve done just that.”
With more girls on the varsity and junior varsity teams playing club in the off-season, the players who come up the varsity now are more experienced and ready to make an immediate impact.
“The girls know the game really well, they know what is expected of them and the communication has been on point,” Carpenter said. “Those things have been the biggest game-changers for us.”