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Radical coaching decision among factors leading St. Joseph volleyball’s good season

By Patrick Carr - | Oct 27, 2021

Patrick Carr, Standard-Examiner

The St. Joseph High volleyball team practices Monday, Oct. 25, 2021.

OGDEN — The St. Joseph Catholic High School volleyball team is in the midst of its best season since its 1A state title-winning team in 2013.

The Jayhawks (23-5) won a region championship for the second straight year and earned a No. 3 seed in the 2A state tournament that continues Friday at Utah Valley University.

There are a few things that have keyed the Ogden school’s good season, according to players and coach Cindy White. Most of last year’s starters returned, the team is generally resilient and the Jayhawks’ players are much closer as a team.

Part of the latter subject, team closeness, includes a decision more radical than anything White has ever done in her 30-plus year volleyball coaching career: she banned the players from being on their cell phones at all games and team activities.

Bus rides are fine because they’re frequent and some of them are long. But when the players are around each other elsewhere?

“I’m like, ‘You guys, you’re sitting right next to each other, have a conversation with each other, don’t be on your phone,'” said White, who noticed in the summer that the players were always using their phones at open gym.

The Jayhawks are flat-out better in 2021 than 2020, and they were good in 2020. SJC leads 2A with 392 service aces, ranks third in 2A with 3.9 aces per set and the team’s hitting percentage is up .026 points this year compared to last.

Katelyn Sumner and Halen Moon lead 2A individually with 97 and 94 aces, respectively.

“I think skill-wise, we’ve all improved,” sophomore Sarah Snell said. “I think we communicate better and I also think that we move together as one since we’re more gelled as a team, instead of everybody playing separate games and stuff.”

The Jayhawks had a tactical hurdle in their way at the start of this season, switching from a 5-1 offense to a 6-2, where there are two setters on the floor at all times instead of one.

There are more attackers in a 6-2 than a 5-1, but then players have to get used to two different setters in a 6-2.

In St. Joseph’s case, Lexy Bombela leads the team with 337 assists and Snell, who leads the team with 284 kills, is also second with 264 assists.

Once the team got used to two setters, things started rolling. Lately, White said the team has made less errors, which was a bigger issue in August.

White, Snell and senior Montse Hernandez say that not only is the team better skill-wise this year, but the Jayhawks are much closer as a team.

That’s because most of the team returned in 2021 (the 2020 team only had one senior) and SJC could do more in the summer compared to last year when the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic limited offseason activities.

The phone ban happened to be a surprise missing ingredient.

“We don’t have superstars on our team, if we’re gonna play well, we’ve gotta find a way to come together and it actually was one of the best things that happened,” White said.

Snell and Hernandez agree.

“I think as we got more into it we started to realize we find each other interesting,” Snell said. “We’d rather be cheering and paying attention to the games than be on our phones.”

Last season ended with a home playoff loss to then-region rival Layton Christian in five sets.

This year, the Jayhawks got a first-round bye straight to UVU, but have a difficult second-round match against No. 19 Parowan.

“We have to believe in ourselves and have confidence, and not remember what happened in the past — just have to focus on what’s in front of us,” said Hernandez, who is second on the team with 160 kills.

When staging the state volleyball tournament, the UCCU Center can be a jarring place for a team that’s never been there. There are four simultaneous matches running, the occasional errant volleyball that lands in the middle of your court, constant cheering from all courts and constant whistles from referees.

In a somewhat related note, cell service is generally abysmal in the bomb shelter-esque UCCU Center.

With that in mind, White added an early-October tournament in Richfield — three simultaneous courts — to the schedule in an effort to get some big-arena butterflies out of the team’s system.

Whether that tournament experience allows the Jayhawks to go deep in the tournament remains to be seen.

St. Joseph’s opponent is the No. 19 seed Parowan, but the Rams have done well against the Jayhawks’ common opponents and Parowan plays in the best 2A region.

And lately in the 2A state tournament, the rural public schools have sent the private and charter schools packing, often in straight sets.

But at bare minimum, St. Joseph is in a much better spot than last year.

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