Building sustainable success in high school athletics is a complex process. For the Dos Pueblos High girls’ volleyball team, a streak of steady improvements over the past three years are finally putting the goal of winning a Channel League title within reach.
A major step came in 2017, when biology teacher Megan O’Carroll, who was a middle blocker for the University of Redlands, took over coaching the Chargers.
“Coming into my first year, I really wanted to focus on the culture of the program,” O’Carroll said. “We are a family; we are a unit. When someone fails, we fail together, and when we succeed, we all succeed together. A big part of that is being accountable and responsible for your job on the court and your job within the program.”
In order for a culture to be implemented, key players must buy in. From O’Carroll’s first day, four-year varsity starter Mikayla Butzke and fellow senior Becky McKinney (a three-year varsity player) have been key to the Chargers’ improvement.
Butzke provides elite versatility as a 6′0″ setter who has the ability to put the ball away like an outside hitter and dig like a defensive specialist. The growth of the team over the last three years mirrors Butzke’s growth as a player.
“I think it’s different this year because we’re definitely closer as a team,” Butzke said. “There’s more team chemistry, and that helps when things get tough.”
Sophomore Portia Sherman emerged onto the scene last season as a freshman with a polished all-around game that was refined on the beach. Sherman offers consistent production on the outside and is a big part of the Chargers’ present and future as the go-to attacker.
“Beach is really nice for indoor because in beach volleyball, you have to be really good at all the skills — passing, setting, and hitting,” Sherman said. “A lot of outside hitters swing hard, but I like to place more because I’m a beach player.”
A youth movement of sorts is significantly bolstering the Dos Pueblos lineup this season. Sophomores Erin Curtis and Natali Flint caught O’Carroll’s attention on the junior varsity team last season and were brought up to varsity for CIF. This season, both have become key contributors.
“They both played in our second-round CIF match, so they got some varsity experience last year,” said O’Carroll of Curtis and Flint. “They were two girls that I definitely knew I wanted to bring up this year and that they would contribute from the start.”
For Flint, who is a setter by trade, a move to opposite this season has been a boost for the team. O’Carroll originally envisioned running a two-setter system with Butzke and Flint, but Flint has taken to the opposite position despite a lack of experience as an attacker coming into the season.
Curtis has been making a different transition over the past couple years from outside hitter to libero, where she has excelled despite being under constant pressure from opposing attackers.
“She is another player that has had a huge growth over the past couple weeks in terms of understanding that the pressures of the varsity match are high,” O’Carroll said. “There are going to be teams that pick on you. San Marcos served at her over 60 percent of the time, and she’s really grown some thick skin.”
In 2017, the Chargers went 4-4 in Channel League play. In 2018, with a senior-laden group, the Chargers had their sights on a Channel League title. League realignment resulted in the addition of the north Santa Barbara County trio of Lompoc, Cabrillo, and Santa Ynez to the Channel League. But it was familiar foe San Marcos that thwarted the Dos Pueblos league championship hopes, as the Chargers finished 8-2 in league play with two losses to their longtime rivals. Indeed, the San Marcos Royals captured the Channel League championship in 2017 and 2018.
“We finished third two years ago, second last year, so it was definitely an improvement,” said O’Carroll. “We were disappointed because we knew we had the talent and the team to take the championship, so not being able to do it was challenging.” O’Carroll is excited about the sophomores she’s brought up as well as “our stud freshman” Chloe Hoffman, believing that they have a more well-rounded team than in years past.
With beating San Marcos critical to approaching a league title, the Chargers were ready for their first showdown on September 19. Dos Pueblos pulled off an impressive sweep (25-20, 25-19, 25-23) of the Royals, marking the team’s biggest victory in recent years and vaulting them into first place through the first round of Channel League play.
Butzke led the way with 10 kills, 23 assists, and 19 digs. The freshman Hoffman claimed the match-winning point with a tip over the net.
“In years past, it’s been this thing where San Marcos is on this pedestal and they are unbeatable or untouchable,” O’Carroll. “I really think our girls have grown individually and as a team. It’s just a confidence thing.”
O’Carroll credits the Royal tournament, where the Chargers held their own against top-flight competition, for the boost in confidence to put them over the top.
“We had a breakthrough of what it means to be tough,” O’Carroll said. “We had a lot of success that weekend, and I think that confidence has really taken us to the next level.”
In order to claim their first outright league championship since 2011 and complete an undefeated run through the Channel League, the Chargers (16-9, 6-0) will have to defeat San Marcos again on October 8 at Sovine Gymnasium.
MEANWHILE, ON THE PITCH: After trading blows with top-ranked Stanford in a 120-minute men’s soccer match that ended in a 3-3 tie last Saturday, UCSB expects a big crowd when the Gauchos take on Cal Poly in a Blue-Green Rivalry match Saturday, October 5, at Harder Stadium. The first kick is scheduled at 7 p.m.