Mustangs all about hustle, heart

Samantha Crew tips the ball in a match against Alisal earlier this season. Photo by Robert Eliason.

What the Gilroy High girls volleyball team lacks in height, it makes up for in determination. The Mustangs made it a point to pride themselves this season on defense, whether it was hustling for every ball, producing textbook passes and coming up with a slew of digs.

“We lost our tall seniors from last year, so we were not expected to have a great offense and knew we had to work really hard defensively to have a good season,” said Ella Blank, the team’s outstanding libero. “We’re a pretty small team and knew that would be a tough challenge to overcome, but we’ve been working hard and things have been going well.”

The Mustangs entered this week’s play at 13-7 overall and 2-3 in the Pacific Coast League’s Mission Division, having dropped back-to-back league contests to Alisal and Monterey, the top two teams in the division. Despite the defeats, Gilroy has a goal to get back in contention for the championship title. The Mustangs will have to do it with heady play on offense and superior defense, led by Blank.

“Our defense has been our strong point, 100 percent,” Mustangs coach Bailie Carpenter said. “Our back row is probably the strongest it’s ever been. Ella completely throws her body to get to a ball, and I don’t ever have to question her effort or ability to make the play. She’s always there 100 percent of the time. … I was originally a little nervous about the season, but they have totally exceeded my expectations.”

Carpenter added that Blank is always pushing and supporting her teammates to play at a higher level. Returning senior Amaya Raoof has done another solid job at setter running a 5-1 offense. Raoof anticipates and passes well, and plays all the way around. Junior defensive specialist Nalani Villarreal plays a vital role in the team’s passing as she possesses strong fundamental skills. Sophomore Olivia Blank has come on strong this season playing the front and back row.

“Olivia has made some adjustments after only playing the back row last year,” Carpenter said. “She’s come up with blocks and hits, and is this tiny little girl who you would never think could play in the front row, but she gets after it.”

Although the Mustangs don’t have quite the offensive firepower they’ve had in years past, Carpenter still likes the play of her outside hitters and middle blockers. Juniors Franchesca Morales and Samantha Crew can finish points on the outside, while senior Belen Gonzalez and sophomore Camberly Johnson have made their presence felt at middle blocker.

“Belen has improved so much over the last couple of years and Camberly has adapted her game and made an impact in the front row, which I appreciate because she was a setter before and took to playing middle in stride,” Carpenter said.

The Mustangs know they’ll need to find ways to hit around the block and use finesse-type tips and find open spots on the court to terminate points.

“Since we’re smaller, we have to figure out ways to play bigger,” Blank said. “We have to play faster and smarter than the competition.”

Blank started playing volleyball when she was 12, and it didn’t take long for her to establish that she had what it took to play the libero position.

“The libero position and what it takes to play it matches my personality the best because you have to be loud and confident and OK running things a certain way,” Blank said. “You have to make moves and set the speed of the game.”

Blank refuses to give up on a point until the whistle blows. She shows a determination that has come to epitomize the Gilroy High team.

“I’ll chase down the ball knowing every point counts,” she said. “Wherever the ball goes, I know I’ve got to get there. I have the confidence to chase it down, and if my teammates see my best effort, they’ll want to give their best effort, too. If I see a teammate playing her hardest, it inspires me to play my best. It’s a chain reaction.”

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