Before the season, Modesto High volleyball coach Adrienne Uecker gathered her team for dinner at her house.
She had her players do an activity where two players would start out sitting with their backs to each other and then rise until standing. Eventually the whole team had to stand up together.
The team concept was something Uecker embraced and tried to spread throughout her team.
Uecker believes it is working as the No. 7 seed Panthers finished the conference season undefeated and will play No. 10 seed Folsom in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I playoffs tonight at Modesto High.
"We do a lot of team bonding activities," Uecker said. "I really feel that has been a huge part of our success."
After the first dinner, Modesto (22-3-0, 15-0 Modesto Metro Conference) players were given a bunch of letters and Uecker told them to work together to see what the letters spell.
The message read "We're all in this together."
"It was pretty funny to watch 10 girls try to put together a puzzle," Uecker said. "But every player communicated and the girls that took charge, we knew they were going to lead this team."
The phrase became the team motto, she said. Uecker put up a banner in the gym with the message and every player signed it, including the coaches.
When there are disagreements in practice, sometimes Uecker will remind the players: "Remember the thing you signed?"
Uecker said one of the team's most favorite bi-weekly activities involved a game call "chubby bunny."
The team was at senior outside hitter Ashley Nickell's house and her mother made lasagna.
Uecker brought a big bag of marshmallows and each player would put a marshmallow in her mouth and say "chubby bunny." If a marshmallow popped out or she couldn't say the phrase, she was eliminated.
"I think pretty much the whole team was cracking up," said Isabel Santana, who had eight marshmallows in her mouth before one popped out.
Said Uecker, "We were lauging so hard. Thank goodness nobody puked."
Uecker said the bonding has translated into better communication and execution in games.
The team is led by the 6-foot Nickell, who averaged nearly seven kills per match and just over two per game. Her numbers might be even higher if her team played more games, but Modesto shut out its foe in 14 matches, winning in three games instead of four or five.
Another leader has been junior Karen Wall, who leads the team with nearly eight assists per game.
Nickell and Wall have played on varsity since they were freshmen.
"Karen is like our quarterback," Uecker said. "Ashley (Nickell) is so powerful, yet so graceful."
Outside hitter Wendy Applegate has been a real positive and libero Santana has been a force in the back row, Uecker said.
Folsom (20-7, 8-2 Delta River League) finished second in the DRL. Folsom is led by 5-foot-9 junior outside hitter Kayla Shaw, who averages 2.6 kills per game.
Bee staff writer Scott Oxarart can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2300.