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Volleyball hits the big time

Inaugural section playoffs add huge incentive for Placer, Bear River, Del Oro
By: Todd Mordhorst, Journal Sports Editor
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Placer High senior Jeff Patton is aiming to do more than just lead the Hillmen to the inaugural Sac-Joaquin Section boys volleyball playoffs in May. He wants to change the attitude of some of his peers at school, who are less than enthusiastic about the program. “A lot of people say it’s not a sport for boys,” Patton said. “But those are people who haven’t played it. I figured out my freshman year that this was going to be my sport and I’m really glad I did.” Until this season, playoff volleyball in the area only happened in the fall with the girls’ programs. The section organized a postseason tournament for the first time this year and the Hillmen are anxious to taste the postseason. “Having the playoffs is a big motivator,” Placer junior Conner McKenzie said. “Now that there’s playoffs, people are recognizing that it’s a real sport, not just a club sport.” Placer has some work to do to lock down one of three playoff berths out of the Sierra Foothill League’s South Division. The Hillmen (7-7 overall, 2-3 SFL South) are currently fourth with a key match against rival Del Oro looming on Tuesday. At 6-foot-7, Patton is one of the few Hillmen with good size at the net. He leads the SFL South in hitting percentage, kills and digs per game and is second in blocks according to MaxPreps.com. Patton plans on playing next season at Orange Coast College, a community college in Costa Mesa. “I’m going to play there and try to get a Division I school to pick me up,” Patton explained. McKenzie’s excellent athletic ability — he is a hard-hitting defensive end on the football field — make him a tough matchup at outside hitter. After learning how to play the game from his father on the beaches of Southern California, McKenzie developed a love for volleyball. “I started young and I would play with my dad and his friends on the beach,” McKenzie said. “I just have a lot of fun playing the game.” Senior Ben Wolken is a dangerous outside hitter and junior Brendan Lewis is also capable of putting up big numbers. Junior Josh Newton runs the offensive show at setter, averaging eight assists per game — second in the SFL-South according to MaxPreps.com. Newton said Placer has all the pieces in place to make a long run in the playoffs. “If we cut down on our errors, we have the potential to beat anybody,” Newton said. Nevada Union leads the SFL-South at 5-0 while Rocklin and Woodcreek are ahead of Placer in the standings. The Hillmen will face Woodcreek and Rocklin to close out the regular season late next month. “Right now we just need to work on staying intense throughout the whole match,” Patton said. “I think that comes with experience and (Robert) McNutt’s a great coach so I think we’re just going to get better.” Bear River Jonathan Good remembers when Bear River was the dominant school on the local volleyball landscape. He was a part of it, winning SFL titles as a player with the Bruins in 2000 and 2001. Now as a coach, he’s looking to take the Bruins back to the glory days. “There’s definitely a tradition at Bear River even though they’ve been down the last couple years,” said Good, who is student teaching at his alma mater. “I have a lot of passion for the game and I think that comes through. Volleyball’s a team sport and everyone’s a part of it no matter w hat.” The Bruins (5-15 overall, 1-3 SFL-North) will need a strong push in the second half of league play to make the inaugural section playoffs, but after dealing with an unstable roster for much of the first half of the year, Good is happy with the players he has in place. “We started with a lot of high hopes, but we lost a player to grades, another sprained his ankle and another decided not to play,” Good said. “We have talent, but it’s been hard to get the same starting six on the court. We’ve finally got a core of players now that is good.” Setter Matt Hall is the team’s leader. The senior averages 5.2 assists per game and is also a capable hitter. “He’s a great all-around player,” Good said of Hall. “His leadership is noticed, on the court and off.” Senior Trevor Parker provides the bulk of the offense. At 6-6, he’s a force at the net, averaging 2.6 kills and .6 blocks per game. “He crushes the ball,” Good said. Seniors Glenn Schell and Tyler Caster are also keys for Bear River. The Bruins are tied for third in the SFL North with a key home match against Whitney on Tuesday. “With the playoffs, it really gives you something to shoot for,” Good said. “The league is really tough, but we want to build this program back to where we were. Our JV team’s really good this year and we’re going to the middle school to get boys out there playing volleyball.” Del Oro The Golden Eagles (1-7 overall, 1-6 SFL-North) are extremely young this season and have struggled to keep pace in the tough SFL North. Seniors Holden Peck and Kelly Connor are the lone Del Oro players with significant varsity experience. Connor is a strong setter, averaging 4.4 assists per game while Peck is a defensive standout The future is bright at Del Oro with size and talent waiting in the wings. Junior Dane Smith leads the team in kills, taking advantage of his 6-6 frame. Sophomore Kyle Russell (6-7) averages more than two kills per game. Del Oro will visit Placer on Tuesday.