As far as high school volleyball teams go, the Buhach Colony High team is tiny. The Thunder don’t have any players who stand 6-feet or taller, which you usually find on rosters of teams that make deep playoff runs.
The Thunder’s tallest player is middleblocker Morgan Johnson, who maybe stands at 5-9, even though she’s listed on the roster at 5-10.
That doesn’t keep the Thunder from competing against giants.
Last season, Buhach Colony was just as vertically challenged and managed to make a run to the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III semifinals, defeating much taller teams along the way. The Thunder followed that up by making a similar run to the NorCal Regional semifinals beating Bay Area heavyweights Alhambra of Martinez and Burlingame.
The Thunder became the “little team that could,” during the postseason and they hope to tap into that same mentality this season.
“I’m not the tallest player but I’m still a good hitter,” said Buhach Colony’s do-it-all sophomore Miranda Baptista, who played key role as a freshman last year. “I may not be able to hit the 10-foot line, but I tell my teammates it’s heart over height. If we can play with heart, other teams may be taller than us, but we can overcome genetics.”
Baptista is the poster girl for what this Thunder team is all about, a player who plays much bigger than her 5-6 frame. She’s a fireball of heart and emotion, who plays the role of Swiss Army knife for Buhach Colony coach Andy Hill’s 6-2 offense.
“That’s why we like Miranda,” said Hill, whose team opened Central California Conference play on Tuesday night with a 25-10, 25-12, 25-13 sweep of Golden Valley in the Thunder Dome. “She can hit, she can set, she plays defense. She likes to get after it. She’s an emotional player and we like that. She likes to fight.
“She embodies what our team is about. We’d love to have a 6-3 player. En lieu of that we’ll take a Miranda Baptista.”
Baptista comes from a family of athletes. Her brother and sister both play sports. Her father played football and was a wrestler in high school. Her mom was an athlete.
“My dad always told me any time you step on the court, or anything you ever play or do in school, you’re always going to be the best,” Baptista said. “Even if I hate it. My dad had me try every sport growing up. If I started something he wouldn’t let me quit. I played T-ball, soccer, gymnastics and volleyball. I hated T-ball so much. I hated gymnastics. It was so hard. I cried all the time.
“I started playing volleyball when I was seven. I started right away with travel and I was playing with 11 year olds. I thought they were so good. I just loved the way the volleyball sounded when you hit it so hard. I was hooked.”
Last year, Baptista finished third on the team with 159 kills and second with 353 assists. She rarely came off the court.
This year’s she’s asked to do even more and also take on a leadership as one of the few returning players.
“Her talent, her volleyball skills have always been there,” Hill said. “What she’s really improved on is how to be a leader. She’s stepped into that role and been effective. Everyone in the program respects her. She’s a respected voice out on the court.”
Baptista, Mallory Pazin and Cameron Gray are the three returning players who played significant roles on last year’s team.
All three of them play volleyball year round. Baptista and Pazin played on the same club team “The Rage” out of Stockton. This summer they traveled to Junior Nationals in Minneapolis where they reached the Sweet 16 in the 16 Open division and placed 13th out of 36 teams. Gray was selected to attend the 2017 USA Girls’ Youth A3 Training Program in New Orleans this summer.
Even though none of three girls are seniors, the trio have emerged as the leaders this season.
“It’s a little easier for us because the three us get a lot of respect from the girls at our school,” Baptista said. “All three of us have played a while. They see what we do in the offseason. They just trust us.”
The Thunder seemed to be hitting their stride after a rough start to the season. Buhach Colony has won five of its last six matches after starting 0-7.
“We kind of had an identity crisis at the beginning of the season,” Hill said. “They had to figure out if they wanted to try to be a high caliber, offensive team or a scrappy, defensive team. We talked about what do we want to be known as and our players had to decide.
“We’re not a high school with a lot of height. We never will be. We have to be a strong defensive team, a team that hustles.”
Buhach Colony seem to put it together last weekend while playing in the Elite Divison of Golden Valley’s 23rd annual Central California Classic, which consisted of seven teams that reached the state playoffs last season. The Thunder held their own on the second day of the tournament with wins over Pitman, Sonora, JW North (Riverside) and Enochs. Buhach Colony finished second in the silver division of the Elite Division, losing to Pitman in the finals.
During the tournament Baptista recorded 73 kills, 50 assists and 39 digs.
“She’s really like the other puzzle piece for our team,” Gray said. “We have a setter, we have hitters and diggers. She’s our right side and setter. She helps our offense and defense. She can also block.”
The momentum carried over to the conference opener on Tuesday when the Thunder breezed past Golden Valley on as freshman Maggie Seifert paced the Thunder with 15 kills. Gray added eight kills, 14 digs and five aces. Baptista chipped in with nine kills and nine digs.
Turlock and Pitman, which played each other for the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I section championship last season with the Pride winning its third title in a row, are both the favorites in the CCC.
Buhach Colony knows it’s going to have to compete with two of the top teams in the section.
“I’d say we’re the underdogs,” Gray said. “We want to win, but at the same time we don’t have a lot to lose. We have so much heart and we have to play with heart for us to even compete with teams like that. Our positive attitude helps us a lot when we play those teams.”