Guy Dossi
The Union Democrat

Rob Hoyt has never been one to shy away from bold statements or predictions. The third-year Columbia College head volleyball coach isn’t claiming 2016 will be the year the Claim Jumpers become Central Valley Conference champions. But he is saying this season could be the best he has had as head coach.

“This is by far the best group that I’ve had in volleyball,” Hoyt said.

The Claim Jumper’s roster is made up of local talent. With the exception of one player, all Jumpers attended Summerville or Sonora high schools.

It’s that common bond of being from the same neighborhoods and community that Hoyt hopes will show success on the floor. And for Hoyt, the more local players, the better.

“We have the inside-out approach to recruiting,” Hoyt said. “We’d like to get as many local people as possible. I’ve said many times that if there is someone local who shows a ton of interest in our programs, we are going to take them. There just has been far more of that in volleyball than in basketball.”

The one non-Tuolumne County player is freshman Megan Snyder, who graduated from Mariposa High School. Volleyball wasn’t the first reason that Snyder chose to attend Columbia, but it turned out to be the cherry on top.

“Originally I came here for the culinary program and then once I saw they had a volleyball program, I was really intrigued by it,” Snyder said. “Because I played in high school and loved it so much, I wanted to continue playing.”

While Snyder is the only “outsider,” she is has no problem feeling right at home with her new team.

“It’s been nice because everyone has been so welcoming,” Snyder said. “I wasn’t able to go to some of the summer workout sessions, so my first day here was the first day of tryouts, but the girls have just been really helpful and nice.”

One player that Snyder has been working closely with is sophomore Chelsea Wertz. Wertz is one of the main returners from the 2015 team. Wertz said she is much more comfortable heading into her second year in the program.

“This year I’m just a lot more confident, more so as a team,” Wertz said. “The new girls seem to be picking it up a lot faster than I did last year.”

Wertz gained a lot of respect from Hoyt over the offseason for her dedication to the program. She would gather the girls in various locations for practice, training or to go for a run. Hoyt believes that there is a great camaraderie on the team, and it is because of Wertz.

“Her mental game has really improved. She’s confident and is the ultimate leader,” Hoyt said.

And Wertz is feeling the approval from her coach, she can act as more of a leader for the players, like Snyder, who are new to the program.

“He trusts my input because I’ve been playing so long,” Wertz said. “He trusts that I will help the girls when they need it and be that role model.”

One player that Hoyt feels is going to be a major shot in the arm for the program is freshman Maddison Stevens. While Hoyt doesn’t know the deep-rooted history of the Columbia volleyball program, he is willing to bet that there has been no player with her success coming out of high school.

Stevens won back-to-back Mother Lode League championships at Sonora as well as consecutive section titles. And and the top of her list of accomplishments, Stevens was a member of the 2014 state championship team.

“She’s extremely confident, a great teammate and understands all the aspects that contribute to winning,” Hoyt said. “Getting her is going to be good for the foundation of the program moving forward. It’s the right step for us as a program.”

Stevens knows that because of her success at Sonora, she might be looked at as someone who will change the Columbia program overnight. But Stevens is the first person to say that a team cannot be successful because of only one person. She hopes that she and her new teammates can grow close, yet, not depend on her to be the only contributing player.

“I don’t think of myself as a great, outstanding player,” Stevens said. “There is a lot that I had to learn to become who I am. I’m trying not to have that pressure, because it’s a lot to have on my back coming on to this team. I just want it to be a fun atmosphere.”

Stevens has already made a positive impact with Wertz. The sophomore can see that it’s not just the way that Stevens acts with the ball in play, but how she conducts herself when things might not necessarily go right.

“It’s just her knowing what it takes and not only showing us, but encouraging us when we get down that a winning team doesn’t get down on itself,” Wertz said.

One major difference between playing at Sonora and at Columbia is the head coaches. Stevens played for recently retired Kim Evans, who is as sweet and gentle as a coach can be. Hoyt, on the other hand, can be loud, sarcastic and enjoys getting in and scrimmaging with his players.

But the one thing that both have in common is the will to win.

“Rob is way more interactive and is more competitive and he will play with us and he jokes around a lot more,” Stevens said. “But he’s more hard on us. Kim would tell you how to be better and you kind of self teach yourself. With him it’s, ‘I see what you’re doing wrong and we are going to fix it.’ ”

With Stevens joining the Jumpers, Hoyt hopes that she will not be the last Wildcat to choose Columbia.

“At the end of the day when we look back at this in a couple of years, she might be a trailblazer for other Sonora girls, because so many Sonora girls don’t play after high school,” Hoyt said. “Not necessarily here, but anywhere. She might be paving a way for some other girls down the road.”

One area that is talked about being much improved is the play from the setter. Columbia has Allie Eveleth, a freshman from Summerville, who has been handing the setting responsibilities. Even this early in the season, Hoyt can tell he’s got the right player in the position.

“Allie is tough as nails and is very reliable, calm and composed,” Hoyt said. “She’s got the right poise to her to be a setter and she understands where we are trying to get the ball and where our hitters are.”

The Claim Jumpers have won nine games in the past two years. But for a program that is in a building mode, for the time being, Hoyt doesn’t measure the success of his team merely by the wins and losses. It takes a special team to turn things around, and this could be that team.

“Success is being able to get the most out of our group,” Hoyt said.

Contact Guy Dossi at (209) 588-4538 or or follow him on Twitter at @DossiGuy