Benefield: Is Cardinal Newman the team to beat in North Bay League Oak Division volleyball?

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If Cardinal Newman is the team to beat in North Bay League-Oak Division volleyball this season, the Cardinals sent a resounding warning to all other contenders Monday night, dispatching a talented Kelseyville team in four sets.

It should be noted, this isn’t any old Kelseyville team. This is the squad that ended the Cardinals’ season last year when they beat them in the North Coast Section Division 4 quarterfinals en route to a NorCal appearance for the Knights.

The Cardinals haven’t forgotten.

“I’m glad that we came up with the win since they beat us last year,” sophomore Kimi Waller said. “But I think we have a lot of things to work on for our league and the rest of preseason.”

After falling 17-25 in the opening set, the Cardinals ripped off three straight for the win: 25-23, 25-19 and 25-20. It was a highly competitive match in a stifling gym and at no point did it feel like a soft nonleague contest. Points were cheered robustly. A warning was issued to a Newman player for celebrating. The match was paused by officials in the second set when the Cardinals’ student section kept spilling onto the court.

It might be early days in the 2019 season, but this was a contest between teams expected to be locks for the postseason.

“This was a big test,” Cardinals coach Jeff Nielson said.

And that result will likely be examined closely by the Cardinals’ North Bay League rivals, most of whom have pinned the label of league front-runner on the Cardinal Newman squad.

Santa Rosa has won the league title two years in a row, but the Panthers lost a slew of talented players to graduation. Montgomery, which along with the Analy Tigers went 6-4 in league last season, returns some key players who could make them formidable. Windsor is trying to bounce back from a 2-8 campaign last year, and Maria Carrillo, which went 1-9, is already 4-2 this season under first-year coach Chris Woodbury.

“Talent-wise, Newman is probably one of the top teams,” Santa Rosa coach Rob Beal said. “When you have the reigning MVP, that is always a plus.”

The reigning MVP is Waller, who as just a sophomore is a left-handed, multi-dimensional weapon who makes the Cardinals go.

Montgomery coach Becky Stavropoulos agreed that Newman is loaded.

“I agree, it’s probably Newman, with Kimi Waller coming back,” she said. “He always gets some great kids and good talent.”

“He” is Nielson. But “he” isn’t ready to put the league crown on his team’s head. The division is just too stacked to preordain a winner.

“I think that we have a chance, just like everybody else does,” he said. “Your rosters all look good on paper until you start playing the games.”

And maybe that is why the match against Kelseyville felt important Monday night. It was played in a positively boiling Cardinal Newman gym, but the competition felt hot, too. Nielson came away from it with high praise for the Knights and their program, but also a checklist of things he wants to address with his squad.

“Discipline — on both offense and defense,” he said after the contest. “That’s an area we are really going to have to get better at. As the season starts to move along, those things will start to take care of themselves.”

As loaded as Cardinal Newman looks, Nielson is not afraid to tinker. He’s moved Waller to setter, having backed off from a three-setter rotation he used last season.

“We had a three-headed setting monster last year,” he said. “It worked sometimes, but looking back on it, it maybe would have been better if we had stayed with two.”

So Nielson is lining up sophomore Cassie Taylor and junior Cami Loxley at outside hitter and giving Waller a full-time role at setter.

“Kimi is able to run the offense and have them hit,” Nielson said. “You always want to figure out how to get your really good players to touch the ball the most. Good things happen. She makes very good decisions, just like Laney at Montgomery.”

“Laney” is Montgomery’s senior setter extraordinaire, Laney O’Neil. She is the do-everything leader for the Vikings and she’s been at it since her freshman year.

“She is a great, great player,” Nielson said. “So smart, so much experience, nothing gets to her.”

You will hear no argument from Vikings coach Stavropoulos.

“She is hugely important to our team,” she said. “She probably has got the most volleyball knowledge of the game than most other players in the league. She’s smart, she’s confident, she’s a great team leader.”

Also key for the Vikings will be junior Abri Rogers.

“She came up as a sophomore into a starting role in the middle and she has developed super nicely into one of the top middles in the league,” Stavropolous said.

Stavropoulos has not nailed down who will play libero for the Vikings — but she’s OK with that.

“In our program, we like to keep it competitive,” she said. “I could see that jersey switching until we are set.”

Across town at Santa Rosa High, the Panthers team that went 17-6 overall and 8-2 to win league lost a ton of talent to graduation in the spring. But these are the two-time defending league champs with a history thick with a winning tradition and that’s got to count for something.

“It’s going to be interesting,” Beal said. “I do have four freshman and three of them are starters. I would say that Cardinal Newman is the team to beat right now.”

But the “right now” part is probably key.

The parity among teams makes this one of the best leagues to watch in terms of excitement and intrigue every time two teams take the court. There are no nights off here.

“It was fun last year,” Nielson said. “You are never safe. There are not easy matches with the way this league has unfolded.”

“They know us,” Nielson said. “There is not a lot of mystery that goes on.”

Just good, competitive matches and a race to the finish.

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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