Benefield: Calistoga volleyball all smiles thanks to attitude adjustment

When you start the season 1-6, it can be hard to find reasons to smile.

Calistoga High volleyball's rough start ignited some bickering, some negative tone and some ill-advised reminders to teammates that they had just blown it. The tight-knit team seemed to turn on each other at certain moments.

“In past games, you get irritated with a teammate, you don't say it, but your body language, your tone, or ‘Come on.' That's not cheering,” coach T'Anne Butcher said. “We all know how it feels when you are the one making mistakes. We don't need you giving them more negativity than they already feel.”

So Butcher banned it. No complaining, no criticizing. She even extended it to off-the-court woes. Have a gripe about how your mom is bugging you or that you have a ton of homework? Keep it to yourself.

“It was ‘I have so much homework,' or ‘I'm so tired.' I was so sick of it,” she said. “For the last couple of weeks, anytime anyone complained about anything, they were going to have to run.”

There is a certain irony in it - a punitive approach to having more fun on the court.

But it worked.

Instead of bagging on teammates, the Wildcats encouraged each other to grin or keep their chin up.

“Back then, when I would make mistakes, honestly I would get mad at myself and I would take it out on my teammates. I would make the situation worse instead of making it better,” said junior Litzy Infante. “When a person has their bad face on, it affects the whole team.”

Junior Angeli Aquino said the team is so connected that they feed off each other - for better or worse. When the griping was at full tilt, it spread like wildfire. But now that they have made a commitment toward remaining upbeat, it, too, has spread and taken hold.

“If a person is down, then the whole team is down, too,” she said. “Our vibe is totally connected.”

So did the Wildcats catch on? Have they faced Butcher's penalty since she laid down the law?

“No,” Aquino said. “No running yet. We learned that lesson.”

“It became something funny and a joke and then it was like, wow, we definitely know how to work with each other more,” Infante said. “Angeli told me, ‘If you smile, even if you don't mean it, scientifically, it will bring you back up. She would look at me and say, ‘Litzy, smile.'”

“Even with my fake smile, I don't know, it would bring me back up,” she said.

Rest assured, the fake smiles among the Wildcats are gone. These players are grinning for real now.

Now, Butcher isn't saying the Wildcats' hot streak is due to her prohibition on negativity, but it couldn't have hurt. After that 1-6 start, Calistoga has gone 10-3, finished second in the North Central III race to a 12-0 Mendocino squad and earned the No. 8 seed in the North Coast Section Division 6 tournament.

They beat No. 9 seed Potter Valley 3-0 in the first round and then toppled No. 1 seed Fremont Christian 3-1 on the road in round 2 Saturday night.

They face No. 4 seed St. Bernard's in Eureka Wednesday.

But that whole underdog, lower-seed thing? It doesn't seem to bother the Wildcats much.

“We were seeded No. 8 and we beat the No. 1. I'm assuming the seeds are done by an algorithm and you just don't know,” Butcher said.

Butcher could be right. But St. Bernard's could pose the kind of challenge that the Wildcats are used to doling out, not receiving.

Think the Wildcats' bounce back from a 1-6 start was impressive? How about St. Bernard's 12-game losing streak to start the season? Yup, the Crusaders dropped every contest before they hit the Humboldt-Del Norte Little 7 league, at which point they went on a tear, winning nine straight.

They dropped all of two sets in all of league play, both to second-place Hoopa Valley.

But Butcher insists she isn't worried about that. She doesn't know the stats of the St. Bernard's players and they don't have common opponents. So Butcher is just focusing on her kids.

And her focus at this stage is keeping them calm, rather than getting them fired up. This is a squad, she said, that can get over-amped.

“A lot of times, if they get excited, they overplay everything and the serves are going 10 feet out, the ball is flying out on a dig,” she said. “It's strange not to ask 100 percent from your team, but honestly, I have to dial it back - ‘Let's start at 80 percent.'”

Butcher admits it's a good problem to have.

“They want it, so they want to give it all they have,” she said. “My whole thing is it's not about who can hit the ball hardest, it's who can control the ball and put it where they want it to go.”

Butcher described it as a rebound sport, and to play it well, you have to play it relaxed. And being relaxed helps players shake off a mistake here and there.

That's where her admonition that players remain positive comes back into play.

“We only have nine players,” she said. “We don't have a lot of time for people to hold grudges against themselves for their teammates.”

So tonight Butcher will try to keep her players up, but not too up. And always, always positive.

“What I do is just focus on my team and what I know we can do, just playing our best game,” she said. “No matter how it goes, we don't want to come home and be like woulda, coulda, shoulda. We want to put everything on the table and be like, ‘There was absolutely nothing else we could have done.'”

And a win?

“It's like icing on the cake.”

And smiles all around. Real ones.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud, “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.

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