The road to the Pacific Coast League Gabilan Division championship goes through Carmel High, which has won the division title since the 2016 season. Christopher High knows this, which explains why the Cougars were elated after knocking off the Padres in a white-knuckle affair, 31-29, 25-23, 28-26 in a March 19 match.
“It means a lot to beat them,” said J.T. Zollinger, a Christopher High junior middle blocker. “It’s a game I always look forward to and a game I always get excited about. It’s the game we really want the most.”
For good reason. Carmel is the Gabilan Division standard bearer, a perennial force in the Central Coast Section. If the Cougars wanted to be considered as a legitimate threat to win the title this season, they had to at the very least beat Carmel once in the teams’ two regular-season contests.
“It was a real battle that could’ve easily gone the other way,” Cougars coach Kevin Bruce said. “We’ve never beaten Carmel in the last four years and I think we might have been a little more hungry. It was a very intense match with a lot of energy—probably one of the best matches we’ve ever played. It was special how much energy the guys on the team put out to work together and build this team chemistry.”
Although Christopher had a talented team last year, it finished 7-5 in league play. This season the team has similar talent—with more experience—to go with added cohesiveness that’s proven to be the difference for what could turn into a special season. Entering this week’s play, the Cougars were 13-4 overall and 3-1 in league play, by far the best start in program history.
Since boys volleyball started play at the school in 2011, Christopher has put together some strong seasons, notably in 2014 when it finished 22-13 overall and 12-4 in the Gabilan, its second-place league finish representing the program’s high-water mark. However, this season the Cougars look to break every school record imaginable: most wins in a season, best league finish and a deep Central Coast Section playoff run.
It’s all possible if the Cougars continue to work hard, stay committed to each other and display the mental toughness that’s been evident in their matches. Zollinger, who had 14 kills against Carmel and is second on the team in that category to freshman sensation Ryan Duross, pointed to the team’s improved chemistry and mental game as the difference this season.
“I felt like our chemistry was good last year, but this year we’ve done better staying positive and keeping the energy up and pushing for every point,” he said. “Last year we would get down a lot and go into ruts. Coach Kevin really pushed that as a reason for some of our failures last year. He told me, Gio (Caradonna) and Daniel (Lee) because we’re captains to make sure we’re always talking and keeping the energy high.”
The Cougars, who suffered a minor setback in a 3-2 loss to Pacific Collegiate last Friday, have a quality player at virtually ever position, starting at setter. Caradonna directs the offense with precision, but just as important, he’s become an excellent blocker, which has bolstered Christopher’s defense.
“He’s been focused on blocking and digging,” Bruce said. “He’s maybe pushing 5-10, but he knows how to position himself well. Him being out there is like having another coach on the court for me.”
Duross has been nothing short of sensational in his freshman year, racking up kills at a prodigious rate. Duross and Zollinger give the team a potent 1-2 attacking punch that puts pressure on teams from the get-go. Duross had a team-high 16 kills and 17 digs in the win over Carmel, a testament to his all-around play as he plays all six rotations. He also won 12 points on his serve, which proved pivotal.
“Ryan is not your normal freshman,” Bruce said. “He’s been playing at a high club level for three years and has as much experience as most of the upperclassmen. And J.T. switched positions from the outside to the middle this year, which has really sped up our process because we thought middle might be a weak point. But instead it’s turned into one of our strengths.”
Duross and junior libero Daniel Lee spearhead the back row, and senior outside hitter Nolan Ciccone plays all six rotations.
“Nolan is a smart player, can jump high and has been on the varsity for four years,” Bruce said.
Oscar Canales, a junior middle blocker, had six kills and eight digs against Carmel. Nicholas Hy, a senior opposite/setter, has emerged as an impact player. Bruce, who is in his fourth season as the varsity coach, said players can take constructive criticism and use it to better themselves.
“We can talk to each other and no one really gets upset, which is kind of a nice thing to have,” he said. “We’ve clicked as a team and there are no issues with anyone.”
Believe it or not, a drama-free locker room is a rare quality to have on any high school sports team. Speaking of a rarity, Zollinger is unique in that he does not play club volleyball despite being a high level athlete. Club tournaments, of course, are usually played on the weekends, often culminating on a Sunday.
“Because of church, I don’t like to play volleyball on Sunday’s,” said Zollinger, who attends the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Gilroy.
Instead of traveling constantly in the summer from tournament to tournament, Zollinger likes to hang out with friends at the beach and surf on occasion. He still works on his game during the off-season—just not on a club team. Zollinger often has a nice height advantage against the opposing block, which means he simply elevates above the defenders and easily powers an attack for a point.
However, when Zollinger faces a big block like he did against Carmel, he can’t simply overpower them. Instead, Zollinger smartly reads the defense and mixes up his attack.
“I have to play it smart and aim for the corners,” he said. “I’ll tip it once in a while to keep the defense honest and make sure not to do the same thing over and over again.”
Zollinger and Duross—they’re both around 6-3, give an inch or two—are dynamic players who can slam the ball straight down for emphatic kills. The two have a friendly competition that helps each other improve and keeps the game fun. Zollinger has been impressed with the play of Duross.
“It’s insane to see someone so young be so talented,” said Zollinger, who has a weighted 4.4 GPA. “He is one of the factors of keeping the team’s energy level high, not only because of his talent, but the amazing plays he does that gest us hyped.”