Burlingame, last season, was about as good of a fourth-place girls’ volleyball team as you’re going to find.
Despite finishing with a 7-6 record in Peninsula Athletic League Bay Division play, the Lady Panthers took division champion Woodside to five sets in each of the teams’ two matchups. Burlingame also managed to split its season series with second-place Menlo-Atherton. The Panthers ultimately advanced to the Central Coast Section Division III semifinals for just the third time in program history.
But the Panthers lost a trio of senior starters from that team — setter Isabel Walker and outside hitters Morgan McKeever and Bianca Alvarez — forcing head coach Nilo Mauricio to retool at three key skill positions.
“This year, we’re a more well-balanced team, I think,” Mauricio said. “Last year we leaned on our outsides a lot. This year, we have to be more well-balanced, just because we don’t have the dominant outsides we had last year to bail us out.”
Mauricio has met the task by reshuffling his front line. The plan is to move Tatum Novitzky from opposite hitter and Dana Williams from middle blocker to fill the void at outside hitter.
Each 5-11 seniors, Novitzky and Williams possess kill-shot prowess. From the opposite hitter position last season, Novitzky ranked third on the team with 174 kills. Williams, from the middle, paced the squad with a 43.8 kill percentage and a .285 hitting percentage.
“Offense is a big deal,” Novitzky said. “Putting away kills, especially for me, that’s my strong suit.”
Williams — committed to the Division II program at Point Loma Nazarene — recognizes the transition will be a tall task in taking over for McKeever, who happens to be her first cousin.
“To pass and set and serve, that’s something totally different,” Williams said. “I have never done that before. I’ve never had any experience playing outside.”
So, Williams — after ranking fourth in the Bay Division last season with 36 blocks — set to work in the offseason attending camps to develop her shooting prowess.
“I do think, with the exception of a few loses we had from last season, we do still have some core front-row players,” Williams said. “For this season, we’re going to … keep it consistent and try to get some hard swings in there because we have strong outside setters.”
Replacing Walker at the setter position will indeed be the biggest loss for Burlingame to overcome.
“She was a leader,” Novitzky said. “Everybody looked up to her. Especially at a setting position, you have to call the shots.”
So, the Panthers are turning to Samantha Johnson, who saw little playing time as Walker’s backup last season. Johnson worked through the summer with her San Francisco Juniors club team to develop the chops necessary for the starting role. And she was in good hands, as her coach Louie Valiao was a one-time setter for the Philippine Nationals team and played the U.S. Air Force team from 1978-85. He is now in his 25th year of coaching.
“He really helped me get my hands better and faster,” Johnson said.
Wednesday marked the final day of tryouts for Burlingame, which saw upwards of 60 players turn out to audition for the programs three squads: varsity, junior-varsity and freshman.
The varsity team will carry 16 players: Novitzky, Williams, Johnson, sophomore Katie Karson, senior libero Brittany Carias, junior Emily Drake, junior Amanda Miller, senior Rachel Topper, sophomore Siobhan Healy, sophomore Kyra Novitzky, junior Stephanie Marks, sophomore Elena Mosse, junior Kiley Spurlock, junior Ally Langlinias, freshman Julia Haupt and freshman Natalie Ballout.
“I say we should finish top three (in the PAL Bay Division),” Mauricio said. “I think it’s Menlo-Atherton, Carlmont and us.”
Burlingame opens non-league play Sept. 4 at Lowell High School.