By Nick Giannandrea
In her eighth season as College of the Sequoias' women's volleyball coach, Kim Rix is in an enviable and challenging position.
Rix and assistant coaches Kaitlyn Harper and Ryan Martin have a 15-woman roster filled with players possessing an unabated desire to improve, and a willingness to work as hard as it takes to get better.
"I've felt like I've had to step up my game because they want to learn and be pushed," Rix said. "The other day I let them know I might have to stop practice early, and they were like, 'can we just start earlier?' They can't wait for practice, and I feel the same way.
"It really pushes us coaches because we never want to hold them back. We've always got to come up with new things to push them. They want that. They want that every day."
The Giants -- who are off to a 3-3 start -- will make their home debut Sept. 8 with nonconference matches against Cuesta (noon) and Modesto (4 p.m.) at Porter Field House. Cuesta and Modesto are set to play at 2 p.m. Admission is $5 and fans are required to wear a mask inside the gym.
Sequoias will be led by seven returning players, including three "super sophomores" in opposite hitter Hazel Martinez (Mission Oak), setter Mykia "Kia" Campbell (Coalinga) and middle blocker Jayda English (Lemoore).
As freshmen, Martinez was a first-team all-Central Valley Conference selection, Campbell was honorable mention all-CVC and English was a steady contributor to a Giants team that went 20-8 in 2019 and reached the Northern California Regional playoffs for the fifth straight season. The traditional fall 2020 season was delayed until the spring of 2021 and shortened because of the coronavirus pandemic.
"They know our program so well," Rix said. "It's such a bonus to get them all back."
Setter/opposite hitter Ellie Applegate (Mt. Whitney), defensive specialist Claire Toomey (University Prep), outside hitter/middle blocker Allyson Garcia (Dinuba) and outside hitter/setter/opposite hitter Abigail Billingsley (Redwood) joined Martinez, Campbell and English to help Sequoias go 8-2 during the month-long "Covid season" in the spring, and they maintain freshmen eligibility this season.
Garcia produced the most kills (140) among players from the six schools across the state that played in the spring. Campbell has the second-most assists (244).
"I feel this year I have a lot of players who can play more than just one position, which is really nice," Rix said.
Sequoias' seven returners are complimented by a talented eight-member freshman class led by a pair of Redwood products: outside hitter Mia Gilcrest and libero Andrea Jauregui. Gilcrest leads the Giants with 95 kills, while Jauregui has a team-best 132 digs.
Rix's freshman recruiting haul also includes outside hitter Morgan Hatton (Tulare Union), outside hitter/middle blocker Brenna Crabtree (San Joaquin Memorial-Fresno), middle blocker/opposite hitter Makinzie Albright (Woodlake), defensive specialist Sydney Campbell (Kingsburg), middle blocker/opposite hitter Victoria Flores (Woodlake) and defensive specialist Lokelanimaikalewaku'upu'uwai "Loke" Kuamo'o (Hawaii).
"These freshmen came in and a lot of them chose COS because they wanted the competition. That was exciting for me," Rix said. "A lot of times, kids go to a place where they have a guaranteed starting spot. But these ladies were like 'I want the competition. I want the challenge.'"
After playing short-handed in several matches during the spring because of injuries and Covid protocols, Rix is happy to have a 15-woman roster.
"It's so good to have some depth this season," Rix said. "Everyone has a role. Sometimes, that role is to make the starter better. If we didn't have that push, they'd get complacent. Everyone is constantly fighting for positions, and that's a great thing for the coaches to have."
Sequoias opened the season Aug. 28 at Bakersfield, where it dropped nonconference matches to Santa Barbara (25-23, 14-25, 25-18, 25-20) and Bakersfield (23-25, 25-21, 25-21, 29-31, 15-11).
The Giants bounced back by winning two matches Sept. 1 during the Folsom Lake Classic, beating Folsom Lake (25-15, 25-16, 25-19) and Solano (18-25, 25-15, 28-26, 24-26, 15-13).
Sequoias split two matches in its most recent action, dropping a five-setter to American River (25-19, 21-25, 25-17, 17-25, 15-13) and defeating Sierra (25-16, 25-22, 19-25, 25-16) on Sept. 3 at Fresno City.
"They still have a ton of work to do, but we're super excited about the fight these girls have," Rix said. "They are competitive. They want to win. They want to improve. We're really optimistic this year with this group of girls."
The Giants offense has been powered by Gilcrest, Garcia (82 kills), Martinez (30 kills, Hatton (26 kills), Crabtree (11 kills) and English (eight kills).
Feeding that attack has been Kia Campbell (121 assists), Billingsley (101 assists) and Jauregui (16 assists), while Martinez (13 blocks), Hatton (12 blocks), English (nine blocks), Gilcrest (eight blocks), Crabtree (six blocks) and Garcia (three blocks) have been obstacles for opposing hitters.
Garcia (97 digs), Gilcrest (52 digs), Kia Campbell (28 digs), Billingsley (27 digs) and Martinez (seven digs) have kept opposing hitters' swings from hitting the floor, and Kia Campbell (15 aces), Billingsley (12 aces) and Gilcrest (11 aces) have excelled from the service line.
"I'm so grateful to our school president (Brent) Calvin, who is allowing us to play, and the support of our administration, and (Athletics Director) Brent Davis and all the trainers and nurses who have gone above and beyond to keep us on the court," Rix said. "There are so many people working so hard to keep us on the court to play this game we love. Having this opportunity to play right now is huge for their mental and physical health."
Rix is being assisted this season by Harper, who played for Rix when she coached at Lemoore High, and Martin, a long-time club coach and high school assistant in the Fresno area.
Sequoias is scheduled to open conference play at 6 p.m. Sept. 15 at perennial power Fresno City.
The Giants' first home conference match is at 6 p.m. Sept. 17 against Merced.