Captial clash: High school volley rivals to battle at D1 level
Vongni Yang, The Union Democrat /
Apair of former Tuolumne County high school volleyball standouts will clash next month in a preseason tournament.
Only this time, it will be on the Division I college level.
Central Connecticut State's Rachel Dunlap, a 2011 Summerville graduate, and the Blue Devils will square off against the San Jose State Spartans and Hanah Blume, a 2010 Sonora graduate, in the Sacramento State Invitational on Saturday, Sept. 7 at 3 p.m.
"I'm actually really excited," Blume said. "As soon as the schedule was released, she contacted me and we talked about it. I haven't seen her since my senior year and that was three-and-a-half years ago."
This won't be the first time the two have faced each other on the court -the pair are well acquainted.
In their first meeting against each other in 2008, Dunlap's Bears edged Blume and the Wildcats in an epic five-set match, 3-2 (18-25, 25-23, 25-18, 12-25, 15-13) in both team's season openers. Blume recorded 20 kills in a losing effort and Dunlap was tough at the net and had two blocks.
Then again in 2009, the results were the same, favoring Dunlap's Bears in another tightly contested five-set match, 3-2 (23-25, 25-20, 25-22, 25-27, 15-10). Blume lead the Wildcats with 19 kills and three blocks, while Dunlap registered a team-high 14 kills and two blocks.
"Sometimes high school volleyball isn't very exciting to watch," said Kristy Dwyer, Dunlap's former coach at Summerville and current coach at Calaveras High. "When those two were playing, it was exceptional and real exciting to watch. Both teams always got really pumped for that match - they're just great matches. Both schools have pretty even people in the stands. We're competitive but everybody is respectful. It's one of the more exciting matches of the year. They always went back and forth."
After one of the more decorated volleyball careers in the Sonora Wildcat program, Blume earned an athletic scholarship to San Jose State University.
Blume was a three-year varsity starter for the Wildcats. As a senior, she was named co-MVP of the Valley Oak League, helping guide the Wildcats to a perfect 16-0 mark. She blasted 363 kills with her powerful right arm and generated 76 blocks on a team that reached the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section Division III Championship semifinals.
Blume was also named a two-time first-team All-VOL player and was The Union Democrat's All-Area MVP as a junior and senior. In her three years, the Wildcats finished with a 42-2 record in the VOL.
"She was an amazing player," said Kim Evans, Blume's former club volleyball coach and current boss at Sonora High. "I've seen her evolve from a very young girl just trying to hit the ball as hard as she could, to becoming a mature woman of knowing the game and being able to do what she wants to do on the court now."
Blume is entering her senior year at San Jose State with a larger and more responsible role than previous years. The left-sided hitter is the team captain and is expected to lead the Spartans program as it shifts into the Mountain West Conference this season.
"I think it's a great opportunity for our program and our university," San Jose State head coach Oscar Crespo said. "There are strong challenges athletically in the Mountain West. It's a great conference. It's ranked fairly high. Some very good volleyball teams - some very good universities and athletic programs."
For Blume and the Spartans, being affiliated with a higher-profile conference will only help the team's progression as it strides to get better.
"There are some teams in the Mountain West that we want to compete with," Blume said. "We want to compete with them. By competing, we know what it feels like and we know what our highest level of volleyball is. I think being satisfied with how we compete, win or lose, and being consistent with how we compete is what we're looking for as a program."
Blume is also a representative for the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee at San Jose State, which provides insight to enhance the overall student-athlete experience.
"She really represents our culture and program," Crespo said. "We have high values of work ethic and attitude, and having the correct mindset to compete and to be an athlete. She's worked very hard her last three years. I highly believe the reason why she is our captain is because she's embraced the values that are very important in our program."
Blume has grasped onto the leadership role, and accepts the challenges and opportunities that she may face. As a senior and with three years of experience, she is taking a team-first approach this year.
"I like to set team goals because I feel like, I'm on the court all the time," Blume said. "So if I set team goals, I know I'm fulfilling my own. If I set team goals first then my goals will come second."
Blume's goal for the team in her final year is to make everybody around her better. She is not into the preseason or postseason praise, and ignores the accolades that may come with a good performance on the court.
"Being a ball handler passing, I really put it on myself to get good quality passes anddigs, so that we can run other people in the front row," Blume said. "I don't look at my goals like being first team or anything like that. I'm just taking it day by day, point by point, so that's kind of how I'm rolling with it."
Crespo has seen the incredible growth spurt displayed by Blume. Crespo said that the communications major is a completely different player today than she was as a freshman in 2011.
"She's definitely have (grown)," he said. "She's become one of our primary passers. She's done well as an outside hitter. I think that she's anchored our servicey real well the last two years, so we're really looking forward to her doing the same. She's an emotional leader for us, and she's a physical leader for us."
The road to a Division I program wasn't as easy and traditional for Dunlap like it was for Blume.
There were only a few scholarship offers for Dunlap straight out of high school, but none of them got her excited.
"I went out to visits, but didn't feel comfortable," Dunlap said. "So, I turned it down - was really stressed out."
So stressed out, Dunlap ended up at Lee College in Texas after leading Summerville's volleyball program to an unblemished 15-0 Mother Lode League record as a senior. The Bears won back-to-back MLL championships from 2009 and 2010 in her last two years. She was named league MVP and earned The Union Democrat's All-Area MVP award in 2010. As a three-year varsity player, Dunlap helped the Bears post a 38-7 record in league matches.
"I have 25 years of coaching in JV and varsity volleyball," Dwyer said. "Rachel is one of the best that I have ever coached. She just had a great work ethic. She's real tenacious and never let anything rattle her. She always had the drive to succeed and worked very hard to get where she is."
That hard work lead Dunlap to the Texas junior college, where as a freshman, the recognition continued as she earned all-conference and all-region honors. But it was her play in a showcase the day after the NCAA Women's Division I Volleyball Championships in San Antonio that stood out and caught the eye of Central Connecticut State head volleyball coach Linda Sagnelli.
"We were still looking for a middle," recalled Sagnelli. "I remember where I was, and I just loved so many things about Rachel at the time. I just loved her future. I could see her potential - had the right tools and we could develop her. I called an assistant to get another set of eyes on her. We watched her for an hour."
After that hour, Sagnelli knew Dunlap had the determination, talent and will to play at the Division I college level. Dunlap made a campus visit soon after, and fell in love with the college atmosphere.
"She is a very dynamic athlete," Sagnelli said. "She brings a lot of passion to the floor and competitiveness. She will fight anybody for a point. She has just a great work ethic."
Dunlap brought that same passion and work ethic when she entered her sophomore year with the Blue Devils as a middle blocker. She played in 29 matches with 113 total blocks (100 assisted, 13 solo), 40 digs and 184 kills as the Blue Devils advanced to the Northeast Conference Championship match where the team fell short in four sets, 3-1.
The goals for the Blue Devils and Dunlap in 2013 is win the NEC title and advance to the NCAA Women's Division I Volleyball Championships in Seattle.
"Obviously, our goal is to win the conference championship," Sagnelli said. "We were really close. We lost in four. It was a tight match. It was really exciting. For the kids to watch there and see them receive a championship, I can see that's not going to happen again. Get back to finals - that's the ultimate goal and going to the NCAA."
Dunlap, the physical therapy major, is going to play a significant role this season as she is projected to be inserted into the starting lineup after playing behind a senior as a sophomore in 2012. Sagnelli, the 14-year head coach, said more is going to be expected from her.
"She is a completely different player than last year," she said. "She is a complete player this year. She is a very coachable player. She asks for feedback all the time. She wants to be good - has the passion and the mindset to go along with the physical traits. I know how to push the buttons to get her very completely. She likes to be challenged. She will never step away from the challenge. It translates to the game."
Hanah vs. Rachel
Blume and Dunlap have been looking forward to this match all spring and summer.
But for both Tuolumne County natives, this match is about so much more than just volleyball. With Blume and Dunlap both on scholarship, they believe that it shows that through determination and hard work - anything is possible.
"I think we kind of represent hope of getting a scholarship," Blume said. "It seems far removed out of Sonora, like getting to school somewhere. Because we have to put in a lot of extra effort to get seen by colleges. I think we do represent hope or future of playing. It's so possible for so many girls. We're kind of a gateway for them; we open up a whole new world of things that we might not have known about if people from Sonora don't get out and go to school for sports."
Dunlap said that Blume played a role, although it maybe a minor one, in her career and journey as a volleyball player.
"I always looked up to her," she said of Blume. "I always wanted to be like Hanah and follow in her footsteps. She really helped me pave the path to help me become who I am today."
Evans could not have asked for a better matchup featuring two of Tuolumne County's best.
"To have two Division I women's volleyball players from Tuolumne County is amazing," Evans said. "To have them play at the same time against each other is some kind of fate."