By MICHAEL COIT
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
On a wintry bus ride to Southern California, the Santa Rosa Junior College volleyball team shared a sunny confidence heading for the state final four.
Despite opening against the two-time defending champions — Los Angeles Pierce — Santa Rosa faces a familiar foe. Runner-up to Pierce in those state title contests, the Bear Cubs boast perhaps the program’s most deeply talented, unselfish team.
“We’ve like never been so ready,” said Kristyn Casalino, an all-conference middle blocker out of Maria Carrillo high. “We’re just way more confident this time. We’ve been there and seen them.”
Santa Rosa takes a 20-match winning streak into today’s opening round contest, losing only three sets since starting the streak more than two months ago. The Bear Cubs went undefeated to take a third consecutive Big 8 Conference title.
Santa Rosa must stay hot in a continuing quest for Northern California’s first California Community College Athletic Association volleyball championship in the state tournament’s 35-year history. In addition to top ranked Pierce, the final four features Fresno City, the north’s top squad, and Golden West, the south’s third seed. Santa Rosa was the north’s third seed.
Fullerton College hosts the two-day, double-elimination tournament.
“It’s a brutal format. The first win is pretty crucial,” said Santa Rosa coach Kelly Wood.
Consider the Bear Cubs past two final four appearances.
Two seasons ago Santa Rosa battled back in the loser’s bracket to force a tiebreaking set for the title. Pierce prevailed.
A year ago Santa Rosa again lost the opener and went the distance only to fall to Pierce.
“We know that last year we got so close. We know it’s going to take a lot of work to be the best this year. That keeps us focused,” Casalino said.
With little separating the teams in talent and athleticism, the winner often is the most fit and mentally tough team.
Strong across the floor on offense and skilled at receiving serves, Santa Rosa must continue aggressive play and put up its best defense yet to bring home a title.
Opening against Pierce is a true test. The Brahmas have a 63-match winning streak going, second longest in state history to a 103-match run by Golden West.
The last Pierce loss was to Santa Rosa in the 2010 final four, forcing the tiebreaking set Pierce won to secure the title.
A pair of All-American outside hitters makes Pierce formidable at the net. So the Bear Cubs will focus two blockers to limit kills, led by Casalino and Luisa McGinnis, out of Montgomery High.
“We’re going to have to somehow slow down their outside hitters,” Wood said. “We’re going to have to play crazy defense.”
With the ball, Santa Rosa must limit errors and set well off serves to get momentum going for a strong offense. Sharing setting duties are Kiana Cassidy, an all-conference player from Rancho Cotate, and Allison Copp, out of Garden Valley.
Santa Rosa is deep up front and across the back line.
All-American Olivia Urban swings hard and true at outside hitter. From San Marin High, last year’s state finals standout is tough to contain.
Opposite at the net is high jumping Kaitlyn Dunaway. The fearless former Petaluma High great was an All-Nor Cal selection. Joining Dunaway in playing all around — not coming off the floor — is outside hitter Megan Johnson, from Sehome, Wash.
“One of the strengths of our team is every offensive option is a weapon for us. We spread the ball around a lot,” Wood said.
Working in a handful of first year players was a challenge, yet they are a strong group that played well early. The returning starters welcome the new talent that bolsters another powerhouse Santa Rosa club.
“We’re really united,” Casalino said. “We’ve been working extremely hard all season. We feel really physically strong going into the state finals.”
CCCAA Women’s Volleyball 2012 Championships
At Fullerton College
Today: Golden West vs. Fresno City, 2 p.m.; Santa Rosa vs. L.A. Pierce, 4:30 p.m.
Sunday: Loser’s bracket, 10 a.m.; Loser’s bracket 1 p.m.; Championship 3:30 p.m.; Tiebreaker set, if necessary, 6 p.m.
Notable: Santa Rosa runner-up three times; L.A. Pierce two-time defending champion; Golden West has 17 state titles: Fresno City one final four appearance.