There seemed nowhere to go but down this season for the Ripon High volleyball team.
The Indians were coming off a campaign that saw them go undefeated (15-0) en route to the Trans-Valley league title, win a school-record 45 matches, score their first NorCal playoff win in a quarter-century and finish second in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division 4 playoffs.
The chances of repeating such success seemed remote, especially considering the Indians returned just five players and only three starters.
Luckily, one of those players was junior setter Kelsey Johnston.
Setting was to represent only a small portion of the versatile Johnston's responsibilities, but injuries pressed the third-year varsity player into the setter's role full-time.
It was a role she thrived in.
With Johnston, The Bee's 2009 Volleyball Player of the Year, setting the table, the Indians compiled a 40-11 record, captured the TVL title and reached the D4 section and NorCal title matches.
Johnston's selection marks the third consecutive year in which a Ripon player has been honored. Ripon alum Kirsten Duren won top player honors in 2007 and 2008.
"I'm really satisfied with the season we had," Johnston said. "I didn't think we were gonna go that far, honestly. We lost so many players from last year and we lost a lot of starters. I thought we would go to sections, but I never thought we would go to NorCals.
"This season we just stepped it up so much, it was great."
No player stepped up more than the 5-foot-6 Johnston, the Indians' team leader in assists and aces.
Johnston helped Ripon win two of three matches against TVL rival Escalon, delivering a season-best 55 assists in the Indians' 3-2 marathon win the first time the teams met in late September. She recorded 42 assists in what might have been her strongest performance of the season in Ripon's 4-1 win over Notre Dame of Salinas in the NorCal semifinals on Nov. 28.
"Kelsey is a fantastic setter and a quiet leader," Ripon coach Larry Keethe said. "There are some pretty darn good setters out there, but I think she's one of the best, at least in our section and in the section's we played against. And she's just getting better and better.
"Kelsey is the focal point because without a great setter you can't have a great team."
Johnston, who shared MVP honors in the TVL with Escalon's Kaitlyn Brayton, said the influx of new players demanded she take on a leadership role.
"We're a whole new team. I never played with half the girls on this team because they all came up and played together for years," explained Johnson. "We didn't really know what we were gonna be like. Going to tournaments up in Reno, we were like, 'let's just go out and play good,' and we would come out and play with a lot of fire and beat people, and it was great.
"Our team has a lot of personality. We're not afraid to scream and yell if we get a point. I love the personality."
Her teammates' exuberance was perfectly complemented by Johnston's quiet confidence.
"Kelsey is one of those kids who leads by example," said Keethe. "She exudes confidence, but not in an arrogant way. She's calm and she doesn't say a lot, she just works hard and plays her butt off. When she does have something to say, the girls know they better pay attention."
Though Keethe says Johnston enjoys playing in the back row ("she's a good hitter for her size and she likes having balls coming at her at 100 mph") and that she could find herself there next season, Johnston would prefer to remain at setter if she had a vote.
"This year, I was like, 'I wanna hit, I wanna hit, but I can't, I guess.' But I like (setting) a lot better than I thought I would," she said. "I really like running the court, and having that role. I think I've gotten a lot better at running the offense."
Judging by the strides Johnston made from last year to this, Keethe is anxious to see how much better she'll be as a senior.
"I think she'll be even better next season and all-everything," he said. "She might even get national recognition. Kayla Neto got national recognition for Christian Brothers last year, and this year she's starting for UCLA.
"I think Kelsey is gonna be right there and that she's gonna be that good."
Bee staff writer Stu Rosenberg can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2300.