GARDEN VALLEY — Golden Sierra has a long tradition of producing good volleyball teams. The Grizzlies have won five Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV championships, played in the section championship match eight times, won two NorCal titles and played in the CIF State championship game twice.
The team boasted a record 13-year unbeaten streak in the Golden Empire League coming into this season in the its new home, the Sierra Delta League. Programs of such longevity are built on leadership.
This year’s leader was Jessica Condit. The 5-foot-8 senior is a second year varsity player who played the right side opposite Katie Christner in 2009 — where she expected to be this season. Having lost just one starter from the 2009 team, Mariko Kawashima, the Grizzlies were looking to make some noise this year and go deeper into the playoffs.
Last year they suffered a second-round defeat to Escalon in a game most players felt was a missed opportunity. But with five starters returning, including Christner, a second-team All Metro player, and Allison Copp, an honorable mention setter, the Grizzlies’ lineup looked solid until Copp decided to sit out her senior year.
Without a quality setter at the helm, the Grizzlies’ chances of a playoff run looked dim. Not only did their postseason hopes fade, there were two new teams in the SDL that posed a serious threat to their win streak, Bradshaw Christian and Vacaville Christian, teams that made deep runs in playoffs.
That was the dilemma in August when Grizzly coach Justin Cox checked over the roster for a new setter. There were several younger players to consider, but Cox decided he needed someone who understood the complexity and possessed the knowledge and maturity to run the varsity offense.
He turned to Jessica Condit, knowing she had filled in for an injured setter for her club team last season. She wouldn’t come in “cold,” but had some big shoes to fill. Without any formal training at the position, Condit was drilled in the fundamentals by assistant coach Jeff LaShell, a setter in college. Together they worked hard to get her up to speed.
It was a rough ride as the Grizzlies struggled through their rugged preseason schedule against perennial powerhouses such Oak Ridge, Ponderosa, Union Mine, Colfax and Nevada Union. But after the loss to the Miners, the Grizzlies went on a 14-game win streak that included a 3-2 come-from-behind victory over Vacaville Christian for the league crown.
The Grizzlies’ lone league loss was a five set battle against Bradshaw Christian that ended their undefeated streak in league play. But playing Bradshaw and Vacaville also had benefits. It helped increase the Grizzlies’ power rating, the number the section uses to determine playoff seeds, and at the end of the regular season Golden Sierra was the No. 2 seed in Division IV, insuring home-court advantage through the semifinals.
Mountain Democrat correspondent Bill Christner sat down for a one-on-one interview with Condit.
Question: “How did you feel about setting this year?”
Condit: “Really intimidated. This was a 13-year championship team. The expectations were way high. At first I thought I might share setting duties with other girls but that didn’t happen”
Question: “How are your setting skills/abilities today?”
Condit: “I’ve progressed a lot thanks to my coaches. Justin gave me great support and Jeff helped me develop my skills. I knew how to push the ball out to a four. Now I know how to square up and take the ball at my forehead. I know how to set a back five.
“At the beginning of the season I would come home so upset because I didn’t know how to run an offense and I never led a team before. But I had a lot of support at home, from my coaches and my teammates — my teammates are my friends.”
Question: “The preseason was brutal. You went up against Oak Ridge, Union Mine, and Ponderosa and got beat pretty soundly. Then came the win at El Dorado. What did that do for you?”
Condit: “The win against El Dorado was our new starting point. We knew we were becoming a team. It showed us we were becoming a pretty strong team and gave us a lot of confidence.”
Question: “You went into Bradshaw Christian and dropped the first game. That ended the first streak. You took the next two games and had a pretty good lead in the final game but lost the match. That ended the other streak. How did that affect you?”
Condit: “It was heartbreaking. It was awful knowing we ended the streak. As the captain I felt I let my team down. The pressure really ratcheted up after that loss. My sense was that people thought the outcome would have been different if Allison was setting.”
Question: ”Did the loss help?”
Condit: “Oh yeah. It gave us the attitude that we had something to prove.”
Question: “After the loss to Bradshaw you had to win the rest of your games in order to win the league title. Did you ever doubt yourself?”
Condit: “We felt we could beat Bradshaw and Vacaville. That was our attitude. After going through such a devastating loss it actually brought us together. We were strong enough to bring ourselves together.”
Question: “Every year Golden Sierra plays the Chris Craft and the Carmichael tournaments and generally does well. This year you struggled in pool play and ended up in the consolation bracket but made it to the championship match. Was that good enough?”
Condit: “I don’t think so. After the loss to Bradshaw we started having team meetings before each game where we would set goals for that game. We focused on the game coming up, not the league title. The league title would take care of itself if we took care of the game. One week we were pretty happy about our passing. We had been passing pretty well in practice and I told the girls that it needed to be better if we wanted to win.”
Question: ”How did it feel to beat Vacaville and win the league?”
Condit: “Really rewarding.”
Question: “You came into playoffs as the No. 2 seed, which meant you had home-court advantage through the semifinals. Was that important?”
Condit: ”Being at home was great. All the support meant so much to us. The stands were full, the crowds were great. We fed off the crowd. Being cheered on helped us play better. The girls have told me that it helped.”
Question: “You met Escalon in the semifinals. They eliminated you last year on their court. This year they traveled to play you on your court with a trip to UC Davis on the line. Were you nervous going into the match?”
Condit: “I was nervous, we were all nervous. I worried about making the same mistakes as last year. We felt we should have beaten them last year but we got in to our own heads. When we were out of system we panicked and made bad decisions. That got us down and it just fed a downward spiral. The wins against Modesto Christian and Summerville gave us confidence this year.”
Question: “You took the first set against Escalon and then lost a very close second set. What happened?”
Condit: “We stopped playing as a team in the second set. We talked about that between sets and really stepped it up for sets three and four.”
Question: “How did it feel to beat Escalon?”
Condit: “It was the most awesome feeling! We knew we were going to Davis.”
Question: “Was Davis intimidating?”
Condit: “Very. Even in practice we were nervous. When we went down to the court it was kind of overwhelming.”
Question: “Was it distracting?”
Condit: “I think we distracted ourselves. We couldn’t keep our composure and that’s why we lost. We got stuck in our hardest rotation and could not pass. It made it difficult to set anyone.”
Question: “You’re going to NorCals. How does that feel?”
Condit: “I’m very excited we are going this far. I hope we can keep our composure because I’m sure in NorCals the stands will be filled.”
Question: “Has it been a good year for you?”
Condit: “It has been the best year out of my four volleyball years. I couldn’t ask for anything better.”
Question: “What are you most proud of?”
Condit: “How close my team has come together and how far we have progressed. We are a family.”