The smile that stuck to Matt McDonald’s mug Tuesday night, as his Lady Bruins took care of their third-straight section playoffs opponent in three straight games, was as apparent as the progress he and his coaching staff have made with the Bear River volleyball program.
For the second consecutive season, the Lady Bruins will serve into the section title match, seeking to bring a championship banner back to Bear River for the first time in 14 years.
As he surveyed the celebration inside McCrory Gymnasium, in addition to the semifinal win, McDonald’s pride had to also reside in the reconstruction project that he and assistant coach Cindy Gordon have pulled off over the past five years.
After all, this was a program not only looking for wins, but simply some semblance of stability on the sideline. In accepting the helm at Bear River in 2008, McDonald became the fifth coach to lead the Lady Bruins in a mere span of six seasons.
Considering he’s a Bear River graduate, one who once took to the very floor he continues to call home court, McDonald welcomed the opportunity to build a winner there. And considering he once played on the most prolific volleyball team to ever take the court in south county — Bear River’s 34-0 2001 boys section championship team — he had a pretty good idea how to go about it.
The Lady Bruin program was coming off a 6-11 campaign, but also boasted seven seniors returning in 2008, which helped McDonald and staff look pretty smart from the get-go with a 21-13 debut season.
A year later, however, the real rebuilding project for the program began.
Bear River struggled to a 10-20 campaign in the sophomore season for McDonald and Gordon on the bench. A 3-8 finish in the Pioneer Valley League might have left some Bruin fans wondering whether they were headed back to mediocrity after McDonald’s surprising success in year one.
But the coaches had no such doubt.
In the 2009 season finale, Bear River was beaten in three straight games by the PVL-contending Whitney Wildcats.
Yet deeper inside that three-game sweep, McDonald could see some real promise in the way the Lady Bruins fought through a 26-24, 25-23, 26-24 end to their season.
“From a varsity coach’s perspective, it’s tough to see your team struggle,” McDonald told The Union that night. “But you always have to be looking forward, at what’s ahead. And the future does look bright.”
Certainly, in addition to the battle the Lady Bruins put forth that night, McDonald could also see the potential progress on the horizon thanks to a 10-2 junior varsity squad and an 11-1 freshman team that both claimed league championships in ’09 — along with a varsity roster that included just two seniors, five juniors, three sophomores and a freshman.
That freshman, Sara Schell, has continued to play a pivotal role throughout her high school career.
As one of the top players throughout the Sac-Joaquin Section, Schell has helped lead Bear River to a combined record of 84 wins against 37 losses, with a pair of Pioneer Valley League championships and a runner-up finish in the 2011 section playoffs.
When they arrive at UC Davis for Thursday night’s championship bout, Schell and her senior teammates Haley Brown, Amanda Clark, Aspen Dutrow, Cheyenne Gosalvez, Sarah Hagar, Kaya Johnson, Nicole Nattrass and Lauren Vandervort will have the opportunity to help claim Bear River’s 30th win of the season and the section championship crown.
But no matter which way the ball bounces that night, McDonald and Gordon have built a winner at Bear River.
And knowing from where their work began, the end result of their five-year plan — a Pioneer Valley League powerhouse — is only all that more impressive.
To contact Managing Editor Brian Hamilton, email email@example.com or call (530) 477-4249.
“From a varsity coach’s perspective, it’s tough to see your team struggle. But you always have to be looking forward, at what’s ahead.”
— Matt McDonald,
Bear River coach, after a 10-20 season in 2009