PREP VOLLEYBALL: Bear River set for playoff quest |

PREP VOLLEYBALL: Bear River set for playoff quest

Bear River celebrates a point during a home game against Colfax earlier this season. The Lady Bruins open the playoffs tonight against Dixon.
Laura Mahaffy/ | The Union

Know & Go

What: No. 3 Bear River vs. No. 14 Dixon

When: 7 p.m., today

Where: Jack R. McCrory Gymnasium, Bear River High School

For the past few years, the mantra around the Bear River girls volleyball program has been, “family, focus, poise.”

No team has better epitomized that mantra than the 2015 Lady Bruins varsity team, and it has led to historic levels of success.

“We are super close,” said senior outside hitter and team captain Kaely Rath. “We love playing together and we have fun together. We compete really well together.”

Rath, a four-year varsity player and the only member of the current Bear River team that was on the 2012 Lady Bruins section championship team, said this year’s squad is focused on making it back to the Sac-Joaquin Section title game and more.

Bear River head coach Matt MacDonald said his team is one of a handful that can entertain the thought of making a run at a state title.

“As a team we set our goal at not losing the rest of the season,” said MacDonald. “There are a handful of teams that can talk about that and actually have it as a realistic goal. We feel that the way Division IV is in the Sac-Joaquin Section, Sonora won (the Sac-Joaquin Section Division-IV title) last year and went on to win a state championship. If we can get through this bracket, that’s a realistic goal for us. But we have a tough bracket and we got to get through that.”

Bear River has plenty of reason to be confident heading into the postseason, having won 36 games this season (a school record), including 22-straight. The Lady Bruins also boast the Pioneer Valley League MVP in Rath, and All-PVL selections in senior libero Brooke Hajewski, senior setter Savannah Wirth, junior mid Alex Staples, and junior oppo Ashley Albee. Senior setter Melanie Jenkins and senior outside hitter Nerissa Long were named All-PVL honorable mention as well.

With all the regular season success and accolades, MacDonald stressed the team is still working to improve.

“We want to keep getting better,” he said. “We talk about things we can control and things we can’t control, and I would like to see us improve on the little things.”

A different look

The No. 3 seeded Lady Bruins (36-3) head into tonight’s first round playoff matchup with No. 14 Dixon with a different approach from years past. Bear River runs a 6-2 rotation, taking advantage of its two all-league setters.

Senior setters Jenkins and Wirth have both had a year running the offense solo, but in their senior year they share the role with great success.

“They both have little subtleties that make our offense click and they are both super competitive. They want to win,” said MacDonald. “They do a phenomenal job of distributing the ball and getting everybody involved and finding ways for them to be successful.”

Wirth, who has been with the varsity squad for three years, was a starter her sophomore year but a knee injury sidelined her during her junior season.

Wirth said it was hard to watch from the sidelines during her junior season, but added she was able to learn a lot about the game from a coach’s point of view.

“It was hard to sit on the bench and watch,” she said. “But, MacDonald and I always talked about strategy and I almost felt like an assistant coach.”

With Wirth injured, Jenkins stepped into the role of starting setter. Jenkins went on to win All-PVL honors as a junior.

With both setters healthy in their senior season, MacDonald decided to run an offense that could feature them both.

“It’s given us a different look,” said Rath. “We’re able to mix it up and we’ve done pretty well with it.”

With 36 wins and a PVL title already under their belt, the results speak for themselves.

“It’s obviously worked out really well,” said Jenkins.

Bear River runs deep

In addition to having the league MVP, two impressive setters and multiple all-league selections, the Lady Bruins also boast a bench filled with talent.

“If we want to be in the conversation for a section title or a NorCal title, we needed to be more balanced,” said MacDonald. “Because good teams will find ways to limit Rath or limit Albee.”

Players like Eleesa Schumacher, Kayla Toft, Kaitlyn Solomon and Paige Shatto all give the Lady Bruins solid options off the bench.

Keys to achieving goals

MacDonald tells his team to respect every opponent, but not to fear any of them.

That’s good because the road to a section title is littered with powerhouse programs, including reigning state champ and No. 1 seed Sonora and No. 2 seed Hilmar, who has knocked the Lady Bruins out of the playoffs the past two seasons.

“We just need to play our game,” said Rath. “Come in unafraid and come out swinging.”

Hajewski said the keys to a deep championship run are the same things the Lady Bruins have been using all season.

“We need to stay close as a family,” she said. “That’s what has us on this 22-game win streak. We need to stay close and work together.”

The Lady Bruins begin their playoff run at 7 p.m. today at Jack R. McCrory Gymnasium on the Bear River High School campus.

To contact Sports Editor Walter Ford, call 530-477-4232 or email

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