Gavilan aims for historic state title

Charlotte Cannizzaro couldn’t contain her excitement. When asked by a reporter to describe her mindset on the eve of the California Community College NorCal playoffs, the Gavilan College freshman was downright exhilarated. 

“I’m pumped, we’re hyped, we’re ready,” the 6-foot-1 outside hitter said. “I’ve never been so excited for anything in my life. We’re going to practice and fine tune some things to prepare for something we’ve been waiting for all season.”

That would be the playoffs. Gavilan finished the regular-season at 27-1 overall, including a perfect 12-0 to win the Coast Conference South Division for a program record third straight season. For the Rams, who are ranked No. 2 in the state, the postseason—the playoff pairings had yet to be announced when this edition went to press—can’t start soon enough. They’ve gone through most of the season blowing out teams with machine-like precision that staying motivated and not getting complacent have been their biggest hurdles in fulfilling their immense potential. 

“The biggest obstacle in our season has been ourselves,” Cannizzaro said. “Like coach (Kevin Kramer) says if any team beats us, it’ll be us beating ourselves, and we’ve definitely seen that. So we have to constantly challenge ourselves to stay focused because it’s hard when you’re playing and not getting punched in the face.”

Punched in the face? Save for a three-game loss to perennial state power Cabrillo, the Rams haven’t been touched. Twenty of their 27 wins have come in three-game sweeps, a remarkable and dominant feat that at times seems unfathomable.

With a roster that goes double-digit deep, Cannizzaro and Evelyn Clonts have been two of the many standouts. Clonts, a 6-1 sophomore middle blocker and 2017 Gilroy High graduate, and Cannizzaro have the ability to terminate the ball with little resistance. Both players are tall, physical and seek ways to constantly improve. Former San Benito High standouts Kieley Hoskins, Lexi Chavarria and Camille Finley are also playing starring roles for the squad. Their ultra-competitive attitude and mindset often transfer to ferocious play on the court. 

“I go up to terminate the ball and go as hard as I can,” Clonts said. “When I go up for an attack, the first thing I’m looking at is hitting over or around the blockers. If I find a  seam, I’m going to crank it down. I can get up high and am able to hit the ball and have it land in front of the diggers.”

Clonts, whose older sister Jenna played at Gavilan, chalks up her improvement to playing on the school’s beach volleyball team last spring. 

“As much as I don’t want to admit it, I think playing a season of beach helped me,” she said. “I was reluctant to play beach because it’s not my thing, but it helped me physically. I am jumping higher, reading the play better and passing better. Getting more and more repetition has helped me in a big way.”

Clonts has a strong mindset on the court, with the focus to be the best version of herself in every match and elevate the team’s play in the process. She credited Rams libero Mikeila Banda for repeating this mantra to her early in the season. Cannizzaro, who was raised in the Bay Area but graduated from Venice High in 2017, critiques every aspect of her game with the intention to never stop improving.  

“I’m proud of what I’ve done, but I do expect a lot more out of myself,” she said. “I want to get better playing all around with the goal to become a full rotation outside hitter. I want to get better at minimizing errors and be a player teammates can trust with the ball to execute. I see it sometimes, and that is why I get disappointed when I’m not that player I envision all the time.”

Cannizzaro and Clonts took different paths to Gavilan. For Clonts, it was a natural transition considering she had played for Kramer on his club team and prepped at nearby Gilroy High. For Cannizzaro, the path to Gavilan was a circuitous one. Despite being raised in the Bay Area—Cannizzaro attended Benicia High in her freshman and junior years—Cannizzaro moved to Southern California for her senior year and attended Venice High. 

Upon graduating, Cannizzaro moved back to the Bay Area and worked up to 60 hours a week, one a full-time gig at Tesla and the second job working as a nanny on Saturday’s. Even though Cannizzaro was working a lot and saving up money, she was losing a part of her soul. Realizing she couldn’t go another year without playing competitive volleyball, Cannizzaro decided to set the wheels in motion to play this season.

“I literally lost my purpose and was at such a low point,” she said. “I realized I missed volleyball so much, so I had to call the coach that I was going to play for in LA.”

There was just one problem. The coach, Nabil Mardine, was no longer coaching at Los Angeles Pierce College. However, in an incredible turn of events, Mardine connected Cannizzaro and Kramer on that very same phone call, setting the way for Cannizzaro’s path to Gavilan. 

“Coach (Nabil) told me he wasn’t coaching anymore, but that he was going to connect me with a coach that was just like him,” Cannizzaro said. “He said there was only one coach he would recommend me playing for, and so he called Kevin on the spot. Kevin answered the phone and said, ‘Hey Nabil, if  you don’t have a 6-1 outside hitter, I got to go because I’m in a meeting.’ Then Nabil connected us on the phone call. We talked for  a couple of minutes, and the next day I was driving to Gilroy to visit the campus and meet coach Kevin and the players. It was absolutely crazy, and everything happens for a reason.”

Despite being raised in the Bay Area, Cannizzaro had never heard of Gilroy or Gavilan College, which no doubt she will take a good-natured ribbing for once her teammates and coaches read this article. Cannizzaro is no stranger to adversity, as her father died during her senior year of high school.

“Life basically got off track for a little while after that,” she said. 

However, Cannizzaro persevered through the unfortunate circumstances with the same determination, grit and verve she shows on the court.

“My greatest strength is the energy I can bring to the court,” she said. “I liken it to the word ‘hygge’, because volleyball brings out all my emotions. The sport is my passion and purpose and what is keeping me good in life.” 

Kramer has done another fabulous job of meshing the talent—which at the community college level changes drastically every season—into a cohesive team. As usual, players rave about Kramer’s ability to relate to them and make them feel appreciated. 

“I love Kevin. I’m a really emotional person and I think I’ve gone through a lot. I’m pretty psychologically sound, and throughout the day I think a lot about psychology. He has helped me get through some of the emotional barriers I’ve put on myself because I’m crazy and he’s crazy, too, and that makes me feel more sane.”
The players have responded by working together and being united on a singular goal. 

“We don’t have time to sit there to build a great relationship with all 16 players on the team, but we’re all friends and we all have a common goal and bond to be at our absolute best in volleyball,” Clonts said. “I’ve never been on a team like this in my life. It’s been crazy to experience something like this, to be on a team with so many good players. But it’s our ability to come together on the court that makes us so special. We can adapt to different changes in the lineup because we have a deep team and have been working on this season since June.”

Said Cannizzaro: “It feels amazing that we’ve been able to bring our individual talents together. I’ve been on teams where we’ve won, but this season has been unlike any other.” 

Gavilan can beat teams in a variety of ways, a big reason why it has a realistic goal of reaching the state championship final. The scary thing is Clonts said the team hasn’t peaked just yet. 

“We’ve come a long way, but there is still more to come,” she said. “It’s important to have that mindset once we get to the playoffs.”