Coach Scott Okada hugged many of his varsity volleyball players and offered encouragement as they left the classroom that serves as a temporary locker room.
“You’re good,” he said. “You’re good.”
His Apaches had just lost a hard-fought playoff match against a very physical and high-jumping Clovis team 3-1 on May 7 in the Coach Dean Nicholson Gym at Sanger High. Sanger, the No. 2 seed, faced a very motivated Clovis High squad, seeded No. 3, in the semi-final of the California Interscholastic Federation Central Section Division I Championships series.
Clovis faced No. 4 Clovis East in the final May 10 and won 3-1. The Timberwolves beat No. 1 Clovis North in five games the same night Sanger lost.
The Apaches battled, but the Cougars, led by 6-foot-5 junior David Hawkins, delivered a response for nearly every tactic they dished out. “Sanger’s tough,” Hawkins said as teammates embraced him and the very big contingent of fans and fellow students from Clovis flooded the gym floor. “We had a hiccup in game three. (But) once we get momentum going, it drives me to play harder. I love it when the crowd’s loud.”
Many of those in the stands cheered Sanger, standing and yelling so long and loud that some lost their voices by the end of the night. And the Apaches fought until the end, trading the lead back and forth in the fourth and final set.
“That was a good game,” Eduardo Martinez, associate superintendent of Sanger Unified, said afterward.
“We loved the crowd,” Grant Harrison said. “Coaches said, ‘That’s the loudest we ever heard the gym.’”
Harrison, a junior, got the “Next year, it’s your time” from Okada. But that moment he and the other younger Apaches didn’t worry so much about the upcoming season. “We’re bringing back a lot of guys,” he said. “Our seniors helped build chemistry, and that will last.”
Setter and senior John Her had walked up to Harrison and said, “You got next year.”
Her said he’s headed to Fresno State and will likely major in psychology. “I’ll probably come back to coach,” he said. “Help the guys out until we win that Valley championship.”
Sophomore Aaron Ly said Clovis was good. “We did our best,” he said. “Next year, for sure. It’s not over.”
Sanger split the regular season games with rival Clovis, and both times the match went to five games.
Clovis had the height. While Hawkins delivered one kill after another, the Cougars’ front line had the ability to leap and block a high percentage of what the Apaches delivered, or tried, to the Clovis side of the net. With Hawkins was 6-foot-3 junior Samuel Johnson, 6-foot-3 sophomore Harmeet Kang and 6-foot-2 junior Grant Lake.
They frequently lined up and deflected whatever Apaches Harrison, Aidyn Jalao, Jesus Gomez, Brennan Taylor, Ethan Ly or Kennedy Navo sent their way.
Ethan Ly, a junior, slipped on a black hoodie bearing a Playboy bunny logo before heading out to cheering fans after the game. The crowd waited around until the team emptied the classroom locker. Ly said he was still bummed out at the loss. “Love this team,” he said. And Ly said he’d remember all of them, “For sure.” And he said the outpouring was nice.
“Biggest crowd we ever had,” Ly said.
The result of that tall and elevated hitting by the Clovis front line meant those in the Sanger back court had to remain constantly vigilant. The job of preventing a kill or spike, or digging the ball, fell on the shoulders of libero Gohan Thao, a junior, Aaron Ly, Britton Navo and others.
“All good,” Thao said when asked about the barrage that came his way during the game. He said the backup provided by his teammates helped him tremendously. “It’s a family,” he said. “It’s a brother thing. The coaches are more than coaches. Another dad. We know they’ll be there.”
Thao said they weren’t happy with the outcome of the game “but in the end, we played our hardest. In the end, we’re still proud. We’ll hold our heads up. No matter how good another team is, their bond is never as good as ours.
“We always believe in each other. No matter what.”