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Osan American Cougars sophomore setter and team captain Celine Baldevia has been a key reason for Osan’s 12 victories and fourth-place finish in the KAIAC.

Osan American Cougars sophomore setter and team captain Celine Baldevia has been a key reason for Osan’s 12 victories and fourth-place finish in the KAIAC. (Courtesy of Bruce Barker)

Things didn’t look so hot for the Osan American girls volleyball team at the start of the season.

The Cougars’ main hitting and blocking gun, 5-foot-9 freshman middle blocker Jessica Richert, transferred in June to Missouri, leaving an inexperienced squad of underclassmen averaging 5 feet 4 in a sport that’s all about height.

Nonetheless, the Cougars are talking about playing deep into next week’s Far East tournament at Sasebo Naval Base, Japan. Since most of the team will return next season, they even harbor thoughts of regaining the championship they last won in 2001.

“You serve tough. You play relentless defense. Court coverage,” coach Brian Swenty said, citing the blueprint used by diminutive teams from Guam, such as Notre Dame, the 2004 Class A champion.

“No ball touches the floor. There’s no such thing as a ‘free’ ball. Relentless attacking, serving and defense. They understand they won’t block many points but … those little guys win because they keep the ball coming back over the net and wait for the other teams to make a mistake. That’s what we try to do.”

That philosophy has led the Cougars to victories in 12 of their 24 matches and fourth place in the Korean-American Interscholastic Activities Conference season standings and postseason tournament last weekend. They even beat defending league and Class A champion Taegu American in a regular-season match.

All that without a player taller than 5 feet 5, including a 5-2 mighty mite, Dawn Moore, who plays middle blocker and leads the team in block points with 20.

“You can’t always depend on height,” Swenty said. “You have to be consistent. You have to play as a team. Communicate. Knowing where you are on the floor and executing.” Still, he said, “You can’t win at a higher level unless you can block.”

Losing Richert “didn’t look good but it turned out good,” setter Laura Vega said. “I think we’re a better team than last year. We’re tighter than we were. … Our skills have improved. We have better communication.”

A Cougars staple has been defense: 646 defensive digs, an average of 26.9 a match. Despite their lack of height, four Cougars including Moore have racked up at least 80 spike kills. Junior Sasha Gluzinski leads with 98; Vega has 96. Six players have served 22 aces or more.

At the heart of this effort, say players and coach, has been setter Celine Baldevia. Only a sophomore, she’s the team captain and has provided the kind of leadership and emotional boost one can’t coach into a player, Swenty said. “She’s a strong motivator. She has that rallying effect.”

“She’s the rock,” Seoul American coach Denny Hilgar said. “She’s carrying the team on her shoulders at times.”

Baldevia has recorded 153 set assists and Vega 145, major factors in the team’s total of 372 kills in 1,256 attacks. “Bettering the ball” for the next person who touches it has been key, Swenty said, and Baldevia and Vega have played the role well.

“We talk about bettering the ball constantly,” Swenty said. “The setter is a game-changer. If you have somebody who can take a shank pass and turn it into a perfect outside set, you have a shot. The setter can take a mistake and turn it into something that never happened.”

“It’s all about team,” Baldevia said. “If one person’s doing their share but the rest of the team isn’t, we don’t have a chance.”

“Celine’s always serious during the games,” Vega said. “She keeps (her playing level) high, no matter who we’re playing, and sets the example.”

Whatever happens next week, with no seniors on the roster, a title next season is well within Cougars’ discussion.

“We’ll be a year older and more mature on the court. We’ll do a whole lot better,” Baldevia said.

Of course it wouldn’t hurt, Swenty added, if PCS season cooperates: “If I can get anybody over 5-foot-7, 5-8, we’re money next year. We just need one blocker.”

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Dave Ornauer has been employed by or assigned to Stars and Stripes Pacific almost continuously since March 5, 1981. He covers interservice and high school sports at DODEA-Pacific schools and manages the Pacific Storm Tracker.
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