The Wolverines have been the class of the BVAL the past five years, and Panzella believes his team could make it six.
Deer Valley returns all but three starters from last season’s team that lost in the North Coast Section final to De La Salle. The Wolverines figure to miss the presence of elite outside hitters Jason Agopian and Taylor Higgs, who have graduated.
Offensively, Deer Valley is stacked with seven players 6 feet 2 inches or taller.
Senior opposite hitter Noah Labonte logged 45 kills for Deer Valley to help the team start 3-0 with wins over tough East Bay Athletic League opponents Amador Valley, Foothill and San Ramon Valley.
Junior middle blocker Marcus Lee, who’s 6-9 and the league’s basketball co-MVP, will play as big a role for the volleyball team as he did for the hoop squad, Panzella said. Freshman outside hitter Jordan Ewert leads the team in kills through three games.
“We have a lot of offensive weapons,” Panzella said. “Our success or lack of success is going to revolve around how well we control the ball. We have a really nice blend of youth with a really nice nucleus of returning players. I think we have a pretty good chance of being pretty good this year.”
The Panthers will undergo a series of adjustments this season after losing their coach and eight players from a team that posted a record of 18-13 (8-2 in the BVAL) in 2011.
First-year head coach David Driscoll inherits a team that lost outside hitters Tyler Evans and Dane Crabtree, right-side hitter Nick Sanders and setter D.J. Morales, among others.
Senior middle blocker Misael Saldana and outside hitter Christopher Farina anchor an athletic team that excels at hitting but lacks experience.
“What is going to define us is the amount of commitment that these guys give volleyball,” Driscoll said. “Being new to varsity, it’s a different speed. The key is making the adjustment from junior varsity to varsity.”
Driscoll said he’s impressed with senior Jared Mlekush, who’s still trying to adjust to the game after transitioning from basketball.
Aside from four players returning from last year’s team that finished third in the BVAL, little will stay the same for Freedom this season.
First-year head coach Arvin Cruz, who coached the girls team last year, took over the boys team this season. His arrival was accompanied by a new style of play for the Falcons. Cruz emphasizes strict organization and execution on offense.
Cruz’s ultimate goal is to run the team as close to a collegiate program on the court as possible. “The players know how to play old-school volleyball, but I’m bringing a new program,” Cruz said. “One that emphasizes things like the X, the runs, the combinations.”
Junior outside hitter Rogelio Juarez, junior defensive specialist Michael Strahlendorf, senior setter Jimmy Cartwright and senior opposite hitter Ahmad Behzod Khan return for the Falcons, providing them with key leadership.
“Every time I see him (Kahn) in practice, he’s encouraging everyone even when they make mistakes,” Cruz said. “Its always positive reinforcement.”
Senior middle hitter Jehiah Gennaro, new to the team after playing basketball for the Falcons, will also play a key role, Cruz said.
Freedom won its opening match against Concord on March 13 before losing to Las Lomas six days later.
After finishing fourth in the BVAL in 2011 with a record of 11-15 (3-7 in league play), Pittsburg is creeping toward elite status in 2012, according to head coach Paul LaCasse.
The Pirates lost four seniors to graduation, but retained senior setter Ron Capurro, junior outside hitter Arlington Fisiiahi and senior middle hitter Vakapuna Lomu, who lead the Pirates’ offense.
Pittsburg’s non-league schedule is decisively more challenging than last season, featuring matchups against Livermore and Northgate, which LaCasse believes will teach the Pirates how to win.
“They know they can win,” LaCasse said. “They just have to get over that next hump, which is winning games. We always get caught in those matches where we have 21, 22. We need to learn how to get those extra four points or so without making the mistakes.”
In order to move up the BVAL standings in 2012, LaCasse said Pittsburg must work on its blocking to match the team’s strength, which is its hitting.
The Patriots’ youth, a weakness for Heritage last season, has matured into its strength just one year later. Heritage started four sophomores last season and suffered through eight matches before notching its first win of the season en route to a record of 5-25 (3-7 in the BVAL).
Setter Freddy Moore and middle blocker Alex Filardo, both juniors, return to the Patriots and figure to be cornerstones of a team that shows signs of improvement four games into the season.
Heritage has already jumped out to a 3-1 record with wins over Clayton Valley and Berean Christian.
Heritage will rely on senior middle blocker Tyler Eelsing to replace the void left by graduated middle blocker Oliver Guernsey. Head coach Janet Hannigan is optimistic about the rest of the season, but would like to see the Patriots take more risks on the court.
“I think last year’s inexperience really put them in a place where maybe they don’t want to make mistakes,” Hannigan said. “They need to learn to serve tougher and hit harder.”
Since the Lions field only seven players, it’s no surprise that first-year head coach Brian Miller believes his squad’s endurance on the court could dictate its level of success this season.
Miller, a 2005 graduate of Liberty, will rely on senior middle blocker Brock Bonte, who was named to the All-BVAL second team last season, to lead the squad that includes three freshmen.
Assistant coach Karla Hill, who graduated from Liberty in 2006 and recently completed her first marathon, has been tasked with helping the team get in shape. Barring injury, the Lions’ short roster might work to their advantage – they might be one of the more cohesive teams in the league.