By RICHARD J. MARCUS
FOR THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Anderson Valley’s girls volleyball team plays for a small school in a rural area. Despite the Panthers’ undefeated league record and two consecutive NCS championships, its undersized players don’t look like the stars who anchor most of the Redwood Empire’s volleyball powerhouses.
So why do opponents act as if they’re submitting to an extensive root canal when they face the Panthers?
“It’s frustrating playing them,” St. Vincent coach Teri Scott said. “They are really able to find the weak spots on the other team.”
Added Mendocino coach Robert Jamgochian: “They are tougher than nails. They don’t make many unforced errors, so it is always a challenge to play them.”
It’s a simple and transparent recipe that Panthers coach Michael McDonald has been using for 29 years at the program’s helm.
Anderson Valley (16-2, 3-0) rallies around a “back to basics” mantra that relies on hard work, hustle, energy and tenacity and a strategy of defense, defense, defense.
“They run a pure defensive game; that’s how they win,” Clear Lake coach Marci Psalmonds said. “They just get the ball over the net.”
The Panthers take very few risks on offense and keep rallies going with the assumption that their opponent will eventually make an error.
“We can’t overpower or bully another team so we try and get them to beat themselves,” McDonald said. “We play until the other team makes a mistake.”
Judging by Anderson Valley’s success, opponent mistakes happen quite often.
“They make you make mistakes. We are a hitting team, so we do make mistakes,” Psalmonds said. “My players got frustrated against Anderson Valley (a straight-set Panthers victory in August). We learn from playing them every year.”
Anderson Valley’s style of play slows the game down and forces opponents to play with patience.
“They are masters at keeping the ball off the floor,” Rincon Valley Christian coach Jim Andrews said after his team’s loss to the Panthers in September.
McDonald said his team isn’t stocked with talent but his players are scrappy and dedicated.
“Hustle is more important than talent on our team,” McDonald said. “The expectation for us is that when you wear the AV jersey, you are going to play hard.”
With the tallest player on the roster, Alex Farber, at 5-foot-8, height is not an asset. With only 130 students enrolled at the school, the talent pool is thin.
“We traditionally have a small team,” McDonald said. “We rarely have anyone that is tall at all. We play defense because we have to.”
Anderson Valley has only three seniors — Mirla Gaxiola, Karina Perez and Jessica Lopes — but McDonald said the young squad has good team chemistry, plays smart, and is in position to finish the remainder of the season successfully.
Currently in first place and undefeated in the North Central League III, the Panthers are attempting a three-peat as North Coast Section Division 6 champion.
Even after losing to Rincon Valley Christian in the championship game of the St. Vincent Mustang Classic last Saturday, the Panthers seemed to be a well-oiled and functioning team.
“They have a really good shot to repeat for the NCS title,” St. Vincent’s Scott said.
Anderson Valley regularly beats Division 4 and 5 teams but doesn’t get the opportunity against the large schools.
“We would not be competitive against the bigger schools,” McDonald said. “(But) Division 3 teams are not going out of their way to play Anderson Valley because there is no reward.”
The Panthers have nine regular-season matches left, as well as the Healdsburg Tournament on Oct. 13. Anderson Valley plays at Mendocino at 6 p.m. Thursday.
“Mendocino is a major league rival and both teams are looking forward to this match,” McDonald said. “This is one of the dates you circle on the calendar.”
McDonald said another key to Anderson Valley’s success is player conditioning.
“For a team that plays a lot of defense, which leads to long rallies and long games, demands that we be in very good shape,” McDonald said.
One thing is certain: Watching Anderson Valley is not like watching a typical volleyball team. Since the Panthers are void of counter-attacks and offensive prowess, matches come down to a battle of attrition.
“You have to see it to believe. It is the oddest high school volleyball I have ever seen, but it works,” Scott said. “What (McDonald) has done with that program is commendable. What he is doing for those girls is incredible.”
Upon reflection, McDonald said his coaching philosophy has changed over the years.
“When I first started out as a coach, I thought the game was all about X’s and O’s,” he said. “Now volleyball is just a vehicle for teaching life skills.”