APTOS — When asked what Aptos High’s most pressing obstacle heading into the 2017 season was, head coach Ashley Tennant was very clear.
“Finding the new quarterback — finding the new setter,” the second-year head coach said.
Elise Coash, a four-year varsity starter and the Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League’s Most Valuable Player the last two seasons, is no longer with the Mariners; she’s 380 miles away in Southern California playing NCAA Division I volleyball for the UC Irvine Anteaters.
Her absence not only left a gigantic hole in the Aptos’ lineup but it also has the rest of the SCCAL licking its chops. The league seems wide open without Coash as the tip of the Mariners’ spear.
Of course, Tennant and Co. had plenty of candidates jumping at the opportunity to fill in Coash’s vacancy, as 60 girls showed for tryouts during early August. Three, however, have risen above the rest: senior captains Dani Hewitt and Madelin Smith and junior Chloe Manor.
Each player has different strengths and all three have shown in spurts that they can get the job done. Hewitt has never played setter before but has seen time at just about every other position and is one of the Mariners’ most versatile players. Smith was a First Team All-SCCAL selection last season at opposite and spent the majority of her summer prepping to take over the setting duties. And Manor, who saw the court sparingly last season but has taken big jumps since then, is a true, low-to-the-ground setter.
“We have three people that can do the job,” Tennant said. “We’re just trying to see if a combination of all three or two of them or maybe just one is the right thing.”
So the four-time defending SCCAL champs have had to reinvent themselves on offense without Coash, who guided the program to its first Central Coast Section championship game since 1995 last season. But on defense, Aptos is still Aptos.
The Mariners, who return nine seniors on a team of 14, still pride themselves on passing — they set a season goal of passing a 2.0 — and they’re not afraid to hit the deck for digs. Hewitt leads a scrappy group of back row players that have set the tone early in the season. Sophomore Cam Dueck and freshman Peyton Dueck have both spent time at libero and will be called upon to continuously keep the team in games while the offense comes along.
While they’re young in the back row, the Mariners are experienced in the middle and along the outside. Seniors Braelynn Westjohn, Hannah Devery and Abbi Saxton are all back at middle blocker, while seniors Lauren Picone and Sierra Martin and junior Jillian Rodriguez return as the team’s top hitters.
“I think defensively we’re going to be very strong,” said Smith, who will also swing away plenty of times this season. “Offensively, we’ve got a lot of kinks to work out…Once we get a few more practices, get used to each other and get close, figure out what the other likes, then we’ll mesh a lot better on offense.”
Aptos started the season with a pair of losses to Monterey Bay League Gabilan division powers Monte Vista Christian and Salinas High. Although they would have liked to come away with wins to open up the season, Rodriguez, who earned a spot on the All-SCCAL First Team with Smith last season at outside hitter, said they’ve slowly started to improve.
“We started out pretty rough but I think we’re getting better as we go,” Rodriguez said. “That’s all we want to do right now. If we keep getting better and working hard, we’ll be OK.”
Along with Coash, Aptos also graduated setter Liz McGraf, outside hitter Ari Rodriguez and defensive specialist Maddie Barrios from a team that came just a few points short of the program’s first section title since 1992. The team still maintains that they had the right players to win the CCS title but they ran out of gas at the end of the year. It’s something they’ve made an effort of combating early on.
“Last year our goal was to win league and once we did it we didn’t think past it — we weren’t planning ahead,” Smith said. “We did it and we were satisfied…We have to keep the hunger. We have to keep going through CCS and want it.”
Defending their league title will be a tough task in itself.
Soquel High finished second last season and returns all but three players, while third-place finisher Harbor High has a pair of All-SCCAL First Team selections in senior setter Pearl Biddle and junior middle blocker Sierra Laird on the roster. The addition of M.V.C. transfer Shelby Anderson has Scotts Valley High thinking it could put up a fight and Santa Cruz High has been attentively grooming this year’s group over the past two seasons to make a run at the title. St. Francis High has all but one starter returning and Mt. Madonna also has a talented and experienced squad after graduating only one starter.
With powerhouse senior hitter Maggie Walters, who was voted the SCCAL Player of the Year last season, and star sophomores Sam Strah and Samantha Werdmuller leading the way, the Knights could have the most talented roster in the league. Yet it will still be Aptos, which begins its league season on Sept. 12 at Santa Cruz, in the crosshairs of all six other squads.
“A target on our back?” Tennant asked. “Always. Everyone always wants to be Aptos.”