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IF YOU GO

Who: Santa Rosa vs. Windsor

What: North Bay League-Oak Division volleyball

When: 6:30 p.m. Thursday

Where: Santa Rosa High

Evi Burke thinks that sometimes, when the Santa Rosa High volleyball team gets down, it’s crucial to get back to the basics.

They huddle up and remind each other to drop their shoulders when receiving, keep an eye on their platform, get their hips behind the ball. Yeah, all that, but something else, too.

“I like to say, ‘Everybody, let’s go around and smile. Look like we are having fun out here,’ which sometimes we forget to do,” the senior outside hitter said.

Burke is smiling when she says it.

It sure looks like the Panthers are having fun. They are 13-3 overall and 5-0 in a rough North Bay League-Oak Division that is rife with serious competition. Analy — the squad the Panthers bested 3-1 Tuesday night — and rival Montgomery are both 3-2 in league. Windsor, the team the Panthers face Thursday, and Cardinal Newman, the team they play on Tuesday, are both a deceptive 2-3. Maria Carrillo is 0-5.

Santa Rosa has been in the catbird seat since the start of the season. The Panthers returned the core group of players from last year’s team that went 15-2 overall and 11-0 in a shortened NBL season.

And it’s from those veterans that first-year coach Rob Beal sees crucial mid-match composure emerging. Because as talented as this squad is, they have fallen behind a time or two this season.

At practice Wednesday night, Beal addressed the team’s penchant for digging themselves into holes every now and again. There was knowing laughter.

“But I’ve never had a team that does such good job of digging out of it,” he said.

And according to Beal, the experience gleaned from gaining a lead and losing it, or starting off slow, might help them in the long run — knowing they have the talent and the drive to come back.

“The mindset of being down several points in a set doesn’t seem to change their play,” he said. “They don’t get down; their body language doesn’t tell me it’s over.”

And when it does happen, the team seems to be able to shake themselves out of it — together.

“What I’ve really found in this team, which has been different from a lot of other teams that I’ve played on, is that this team is really good at coming back again,” said senior libero Jenna Kim.

It’s that back-to-basics thing again. And the smiling.

“We want to have a perfect game and we get in our heads a little bit,” senior setter Sophia Oden said. “We are so into the game that we kind of just forget about the basics of volleyball and like getting our platform there, getting the ball and having some fun — we are kind of too focused on winning.”

In the NBL-Oak, that focus on winning can’t be all bad. The division is stout.

And Thursday’s match with Windsor will be a real test. The last time these two squads played, on Sept. 18, the Jags were without two key players and the Panthers knew it. Santa Rosa won 3-0.

But the Panthers are prepping for a Windsor team at full staff Thursday.

IF YOU GO

Who: Santa Rosa vs. Windsor

What: North Bay League-Oak Division volleyball

When: 6:30 p.m. Thursday

Where: Santa Rosa High

“I’m really excited to see how that changes the dynamic out on the court for us,” Burke said.

And there is no rest after that, because next Tuesday the Panthers face a Cardinal Newman squad that pushed them to their limit when they played at Newman Sept. 20.

And no one wearing orange and black Wednesday had forgotten.

“They took us to five sets,” Beal said. “They definitely gave us a battle.”

Beal suspects the Panthers let down after winning the first set 25-16.

“(It) was kind of a mindset of ‘Oh, we got this,’ and Cardinal Newman came out and started playing like we thought they would,” he said.

Newman took the second set 25-21 and the third set 25-15 before the Panthers rallied for a 25-22 fourth-set win and 15-11 in the fifth to finish off the match.

“Cardinal Newman played us well and kept us on the defensive a lot,” Beal said. “Even on a lot of scramble plays, Cardinal Newman was putting pressure on us.”

And that pressure led to Panther mistakes.

“I’m definitely looking forward to that match again, just to redeem ourselves,” said senior middle hitter Isa Ponce. “We played well but we had such low energy and many mistakes.”

Heading into the second half of the season, the Panthers can’t do much better in the win/loss column, but it’s a team with its sights set on the postseason — so they sound like a group that is trying to sharpen all aspects of their game going forward.

Santa Rosa is currently ranked No. 6 among North Coast Section Division 1 squads. California High, a team that beat the Panthers 2-1 in a tournament Sept. 15, is ranked No. 2.

“I think there are a lot of really great teams in our league but I do feel pretty confident in our team that if we are playing at our best, we are pretty unstoppable,” Burke said.

“We don’t have to worry about the other team, we just need to play for ourselves,” she said. “Play how we know we can play.”

And smile.

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

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