Sonora’s varsity volleyball team finished 19-10 overall last year and 14-1 in the Mother Lode League to win it with a single road loss to second-place Calaveras.

They made the 2018 CIF Sac-Joaquin Section Girls Volleyball Division 3 Championships, where they lost their first-round matchup on the road in four sets, 20-25, 22-25, 25-21, 20-25, to El Camino, about 200 miles northwest of Sonora.

The lone Mother Lode League loss last year to Calaveras was their first league loss since 2012. Wildcats varsity teams posted five consecutive undefeated Mother Lode League seasons from 2013 to 2017.

The 2019 Sonora varsity volleyball team is missing some key players from last year, but they’re reloading for another attempt to dominate Mother Lode League opponents and to try to improve on their 2018 postseason performance.

Alexis Herfurth, 16, is a sophomore outside hitter in her second year of varsity. She played varsity as a freshman last year in part because she had club volleyball experience, including three years with Club SSV, Sonora Sports Volleyball.

“I’m excited for playoffs this year because last year we lost in the first round,” Herfurth said during a recent practice in Bud Castle Gym. “Hopefully we get to the later stages this time. We want to play the best teams in the state.”

Hope Houck is a 15-year-old sophomore in her first year on varsity. She played junior varsity her freshman year and she describes herself as an all-around player.

“There are challenges connecting with a new team,” Houck said. “And playing at a higher level, where people are more experienced.”

Some varsity players wore gray T-shirts with the words “We are . . . Smarter Harder Tougher Team!!!” in yellow-and-green letters blazed on the front. They set up on two separate courts for serve-receive drills and tried running quick offensive variations off serve-receive.

Ainslee Shuemake, a 17-year-old senior, is playing her second year of varsity on top of two years of junior varsity. She usually lines up as opposite hitter and often scores the most points because she’s one of her team’s designated spikers.

“We have a lot of new players, so I’m just excited to have a new lineup and have different players to play with,” Shuemake said. “We’re deep and we have a lot of new talent and a lot of options. So it’s going to be interesting.”

Riley Hessler is a 17-year-old senior, in her second year of varsity, with one year on junior varsity and one year on the first-year volleyball team. She prefers to play libero.

“She’s the best defensive player on the team,” said Hessler’s teammate, Brenna Canepa. “She’s consistent, she’s reliable. People can count on her to make a good pass each time, get it over to our setters.”

“We’re not as tall as last year but we’re scrappy and fast,” Hessler said. “From last year we miss Bella Patterson, Sha'nece Garrett, and Britney Canepa.”

Brenna Canepa, 17, another senior this year with varsity and junior varsity experience, said that even though the Wildcats have lost some experienced players, including her older sister, Britney, the current team’s players have a lot of confidence in each other.

Libero is a defensive specialist who plays out of the back row only, said Amy Wahlbrink, who is in her third year coaching varsity volleyball at Sonora High. The libero is often the best passer and the best defender, capable of digging out hard-driven spikes.

Wahlbrink is a 1999 graduate of Summerville, where she played varsity volleyball two years. She moved on to Cuesta College and played two years of women’s volleyball, followed by two more years of Division 1 competition playing for University of California, Riverside.

“What I love about volleyball is every match has its own star,” Wahlbrink said. “It’s not usually one player every night. We have several girls who are capable of leading, so it’s possibly going to be somebody different each match.”

Five years ago in the postseason, Sonora went down to Santiago Canyon College in Orange County, more than 350 miles south of Sonora, and defeated Alta Loma High School from nearby Rancho Cucamonga in five sets to win 25-19, 25-19, 17-25, 22-25, 15-8, and earn the CIF Division IV state volleyball crown in December 2014.

None of the players interviewed this week talked about the state title Sonora won in varsity volleyball in 2014. But they know they are defending their program’s reputation and the 2014 championship banner is among those hanging in Bud Castle Gym.

Sonora varsity and junior varsity volleyball teams start their 2019 seasons hosting the Sonora Jamboree scrimmage with five other teams 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday. They have an exhibition foundation match on the road against Buhach Colony High School in Atwater at 7 p.m. Aug. 26, and they play their first competitive match at 6 p.m. Aug. 27 at home versus Modesto High School.

“We tend to start our preseason schedule with all D1 and D2 schools,” Wahlbrink said. “Tougher competition helps prepare us for the rigors of league play.”

Decade of dominance: Sonora varsity volleyball 2009-2018

2018: Overall 19-10 League 14-1

2017: Overall 27-9 League 12-0

2016: Overall 25-8 League 12-0

2015: Overall 32-5 League 12-0

2014: Overall 37-5 League 12-0

2013: Overall 29-7 League 14-0

2012: Overall 27-8 League 13-1

2011: Overall 27-7 League 14-0

2010: Overall 23-11 League 12-1

2009: Overall 33-7 League 17-0

2019 Sonora Wildcats Varsity Volleyball Schedule

Aug. 17 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sonora Jamboree (Scrimmage) at Sonora

Aug. 26 7 p.m. Buhach Colony (Exhibition Foundation Game) in Atwater

Aug. 27 6 p.m. Modesto at Sonora

Aug. 29 6 p.m. Sonora at Oakdale

Sept. 3 6 p.m. Sonora at Gregori

Sept. 5 6 p.m. Sonora at Argonaut

Sept. 6-7 TBA Central California Classic Tourney in Merced

Sept. 10 6 p.m. Calaveras at Sonora

Sept. 12 6 p.m. Amador at Sonora

Sept. 17 6 p.m. Sonora at Bret Harte

Sept. 19 6 p.m. Sonora at Summerville

Sept. 24 6 p.m. Argonaut at Sonora

Sept. 26 6 p.m. Sonora at Calaveras

Oct. 1 6 p.m. Sonora at Amador

Oct. 3 6 p.m. Bret Harte at Sonora

Oct. 8 6 p.m. Summerville at Sonora

Oct. 10 6 p.m. Sonora at Argonaut

Oct. 12 TBA 12th Annual Girls Stockton Varsity Classic

Oct. 15 6 p.m. Calaveras at Sonora

Oct. 17 6 p.m. Amador at Sonora

Oct. 22 6 p.m. Sonora at Bret Harte

Oct. 24 6 p.m. Sonora at Summerville

Contact Guy McCarthy at or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.