College volleyball: New journey lies in front of Otters

Peninsula Premier Admin

MARINA — Changing the culture wasn’t the priority. Instead, structure and growth came to the forefront for a program that had been idle for over 18 months.

Granted, when Courtney Materazzi landed the job as the new volleyball coach at CSUMB 36 hours before her first scheduled practice, it wasn’t ideal.

Yet, through the interview process and constant texts from her players even before she packed her belongings, it was evident it was time to come home and take the Otters into uncharted waters.

CSUMB coach Courtney Materazzi. (CSUMB)

“Being an alum, I felt it was my dream job,” said Materazzi, a 2008 CSUMB graduate. “Leaving a team I cared about and still do was the most difficult part. But I couldn’t turn this opportunity down.”

Having guided Fairmont State University in West Virginia to seven consecutive playoff appearances, Materazzi won 130 matches in seven seasons, earning Coach of the Year honors last season.

Senior hitter Jenna Tobin went over 600 kills for her career earlier this month and is in the top 15 all-time. (Kevin Gilmore — CSU Monterey Bay)

Familiarity as a player and coach at the Division II level, Materazzi made an impact upon arrival with her passion for a program that as a player, she was part of during the transition from NAIA to Division II in 2005.

“Her being an alumni makes the experience more special,” said Salinas High graduate and defensive specialist Kaila Uota. “There’s a connection — a passion for being an Otter.”

The growing pains have been put on hold as the Otters will jump into California Collegiate Athletic Association conference play Thursday, having equaled their entire win total (six) from their last season on the volleyball court in 2019.

“During the interview process, players were part of the panel,” Materazzi said. “That to me showed a lot of investment. The minute I was hired, players were texting ‘when can we start training?’”

For a program that had been idle from competition for over 600 days, running up a sand dune on the beach never felt so gratifying.

“I was a part of the panel,” Uota said. “She seemed so motivated and understood the culture we have created here. She wanted to know our goals going forward. I felt an immediate connection.”

Whether it’s a chip on their shoulder from a preseason projection, or self-motivation, the Otters have come out and looked anything but the 6-19 team from 2019.

“We’re internalizing our motivation and making sure we’re playing the way we’re proud of,” Materazzi said.

The team is projected to finish 11th in the conference.

“Really?” Uota said. “That’s what they said?”

While Materazzi inherited the roster, it’s one of promise, with the return of senior hitter Jenna Tobin and the arrival of Gonzaga transfer Abby Knapp joining her at the net.

“Jenna is so quick,” Materazzi said. “She’s definitely powerful with a heavy arm. She’s not a hitter that is stubborn. Her retention of what happened on the previous play makes her dynamic.”

Tobin, who went over 600 kills for her career earlier this month and is in the top 15 all-time, is also a pretty good recruiter, having convinced Knapp to join her.

The two were teammates on a club team in high school in the Modesto area. The pair make CSUMB lethal on the outside of the net, with the 6-foot-2 Knapp being a lefty hitting on the right side.

“Abby has great size,” Materazzi said. “She gives our setters a great window of opportunity. We can set her a lot of different balls. She has a lot of range.”

Add Kaylie Honberger into the mix on the outside and the Otters have three hitters averaging over 10 kills a match.

“I’m honestly just happy with where they’re trying to focus and be about,” Materazzi said. “Growth has been our biggest goal.”

That includes the back row where Uota solidifies the defense, having evolved from a part-time player as a freshman in 2019 to having a prominent role this season, along with back-row specialist Sam Chavez.

“She’s so fast,” Materazzi said. “Kaila has a lot of range. As far as serve-receive, she is really sound there. She makes a lot of saves. Rally saves are her best attributes.”

Uota has already surpassed her dig totals from two years ago in a fourth of the matches for CSUMB, playing with confidence and a sense of urgency.

“It’s been awesome to see how driven everyone is to compete again,” Uota said. “You can feel it in our gym in practice and matches. We’re hungry and we’re motivated to erase 2019.”

A core of middle blockers have slowed opponents’ attack, while Aly Fullbright and Sophia Torres have enabled Materazzi to run either a 5-1 or two set formation to enhance the offensive flow.

“We have the flexibility to mix it up,” Materazzi said. “Whatever keeps the numbers moving is what we’re going to go with.”

Seven years removed from setting a school record for wins with 18, CSUMB has managed just one winning conference season since 2018, with no trips to the postseason.

While Materazzi was racking up 130 wins in her seven seasons at Fairmont, the Otters managed 74 wins in the same period.

“I have followed CSUMB since I left,” Materazzi said. “I know how competitive the conference is. Right now our drive is to be more offensively consistent and embrace the hitting percentage.”

Limiting opponents’ scoring opportunities will likely dictate if the Otters can climb into contention this fall and make a postseason appearance.

“This conference is about consistency on offense,” Materazzi said. “It’s such a physical conference. Coming back after 18 months and with the travel, we need to address the physicality of it.”

Uota has seen the passion that Materazzi has for the school and the program. Her attitude has been contagious.

“We’re finding that balance of new blood mixed in with those that are back,” Uota said. “I feel I’ve grown a lot. She’s (Materazzi) our leader and helping us get to another level.”

To see CSUMB’s schedule visit https://otterathletics.com/sports/womens-volleyball/schedule

Contributed by local news sources

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