Volleyball team rallies for a breakout year

The SF State women's volleyball team is having a breakout year, currently tied for third place in its conference and battling to capture the first place spot in the last few weeks of the season.

"It's really a competitive and exciting season," said head coach Michelle Patton, "Any team in this conference can beat any other on a given night."

This year, the Gators kicked off their season with one of the best starts in the history of the volleyball program and now have a record of nine wins and four losses in the California Collegiate Athletic Association. With four weeks to go, they trail only Cal State San Bernardino and the University of California San Diego, and hope to keep up the momentum in a game against Chico State on Friday at 7 p.m.

A photo of Iris Tolenada hitting volleyball during game

Iris Tolenada and Meagan Wright. (Credit: Mike Getman)

"We were ranked seventh in the league in the beginning of the season," said freshman Meagan Wright. "To get where we are now, we just put the effort in."

Many of the players attribute their season to the strong leadership of Patton, now in her fifth season with the volleyball program. In 2009, in just her second year at SF State, she led the Gators to their first NCAA tournament since 1987.

Paton emphasizes preparation by compiling detailed scouting reports and keeping the team focused on improving their skills during practices.

"Defense is one of our strengths," said Patton. "We've always been a good defensive team, which has kept us in a lot of matches. But kills (spikes) are the other side of the equation, and we've been focusing on improving our kills too."

"The coaches demand a ton of energy and discipline from us, and that's how it needs to be," said senior Megan Johnson.

A photo of Megan Johnson returning ball during game

Megan Johnson (Credit: Mike Getman)

In 2011, the Gators finished in a tie for fifth place with an 11-11 record in conference play. At the start of this year, the team had lost five players to graduation, and there were some big spots in the roster to fill. But young players have stepped up, including a number of freshmen, like Wright, who have earned starting roles.

"Every girl is capable of winning the game," said Johnson. "We're a younger team, but the returners have stepped up into a leadership role."

Senior Iris Tolenada has emerged as the team's "emotional leader," according to Patton, but she has also carried the team on the court, becoming the Gator's all time leader in career assists with 4,231. In 2009, she was named CCAA's Freshman of the Year and last week was named the CCAA Volleyball Player of the Week.

The Gators will play four more home games before ending the season at Humboldt State on Nov. 17. They hope to stay in the running for a first place finish, and have started to set their sights on the NCAA Division II West Regional Championships at the end of November.

"October is a good time to be at home because it will help us keep our focus during this crucial time of the season," said Patton.

-- Philip Riley