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After winning six straight Los Padres League championships, the Santa Ynez High girls volleyball team – on paper, at least – looks like it will have its work cut out for it to run that streak to seven.

The Pirates have just three consistent starters returning from last year’s team, which reached the CIF quarterfinals, and will look to utilize a new lineup with many new faces when they take the court for their first scrimmage Aug. 28 at Atascadero.

Despite the firepower that the team may have lost, though, the coaches and players are instead focusing on what they have, and they all seem confident that success is on the horizon.

“A lot of other teams think we’re down on the totem pole this year, but I think we’re going to do good and surprise them all,” said senior setter Ashley Carroll, one of the returning starters.

Coach Chip Fenenga didn’t hide the fact that the squad will surely miss the experience and talent that was lost to graduation, but he said this year’s group of players – many of whom are at similar skill levels – can make up for it in other ways.

“I think we’re going to have to play outstanding defense and really keep unforced errors to a minimum,” said Fenenga, who noted that this year’s team lacks the height and individual dominance from those previous Santa Ynez teams. “I think we’re a very quick and really smart team, it’s just that we don’t have the real go-to, side-out kill leaders that we’ve had in the past.”

Along with Carroll, the team returns junior Ariel Johnston, who was a libero last year but will likely be a hitter this fall, and junior Susanna Cole, a middle blocker entering her second varsity season. Joining them will be a large group of players with either limited or no varsity experience. Among them: senior outside hitter Megan Schumer; senior Kelly Krivulka, whom Fenenga said is looking at possibly playing in college next year; junior blocker Kelsy Fimlaid, who was a strong inside presence on the JV team last year; and sophomore setter Alexandra Carlson.

“We hope they will provide some stability for us,” the coach said of the group. “It’s going to be a real competitive bunch. We’ll just see who rises and is consistent and powerful and motivated, and how the team comes together. We’ve got a big mix and wide range of kids this year.”

Johnston, who is also a standout on the Pirates’ soccer and track and field teams, said teamwork will be the key to overcoming the lack of individual “stars.”

“We don’t have any go-to hitter, but if we work as a team I think we’ll do really well this season,” she said.

The team began its fall practices in late July, but stepped up from three to five days of practices this week. Several of the players also compete on club teams and worked out with those squads over the offseason.

Fenenga said that developing chemistry among the players has been one of the top priorities thus far this summer. He has a philosophy that he likes his teams to employ that he termed “COPA,” which stands for “Court of Pure Aloha.” The term comes from his Hawaiian background – he was born in the territory of Hawaii – and basically means to play strong and aggressive, but be able to enjoy it afterward and have fun.

“Right now we’re not there,” he said of all the players being on the same page. “We haven’t really connected yet, but that’s one of the goals early on in the season. We want to get the girls really focused on the concept of team: digging, hitting, serving, supporting each other. Just a good feel all the way around.”

Carroll said the team will have bonding days before the season to aid that effort. Those will include pasta get-togethers, gatherings to tie-dye T-shirts for gamedays, or just hanging out together. She said many of the girls are already familiar with one another. “We’ve worked together in club and earlier in our high school life, so I don’t think it’s going to be that hard,” she said. “I think we’re going to have a strong team as long as we keep our confidence up and believe in one another.”

Fenenga said he prefers to look at things one match at a time. He won’t get ahead of himself and discuss another potential league title. Although he expects stiff competition, particularly from Cabrillo, Templeton and Nipomo, he said his focus will be on his own team, not the opposition.

“I don’t look too far ahead,” he said. “I just try to put kids in a place where they can be successful at what they do. We want to try to develop a sort of spirit on the team where people go, ‘Ok, I’m going to compete every point and every play no matter what the position is.’ We try to control what we can do on our side of the court, not what’s happening on the other side of the court.”

Much like their coach, the players aren’t necessarily focused on the end result, either. Carroll, who similarly said she is taking a game-by-game approach, said her top goal is to enjoy the season and continue to improve with her teammates.

“Just stay strong, confident and try to have no drama,” she said of her season plans. Added Johnston: “Hopefully, we can all just stay positive.”

willis@syvjournal.com