By Jesse Muñoz
For The Signal
The College of the Canyons women’s volleyball roster looks a lot different than it did a season ago, but the mentality of the team hasn’t wavered.
Gone are conference player of the year Emily Burns and the four all-conference honorees that helped lead Canyons to the California Community College Athletic Association (CCCAA) State Championship tournament.
Ready to step in is a trio of seasoned sophomores and a class of nine freshmen with one common goal — do it again!
“That’s been our goal from the get-go, we want to do it again,” said COC head coach Clay Timmons, who enters his third year at the helm and 14th season overall with the program.
“Knowing all the players we were not going to have back, there was a lot of recruiting over the summer. So far all of the freshmen have really done a great job understanding what the culture is here, and what we expect out of our seasons.”
In recent years, COC “seasons” have included four Western State Conference (WSC), South Division championships (2013, 2014, 2015, 2017) and two state championship tournament appearances (2015, 2017).
“We’re a whole new team,” said COC sophomore Toni Bito after Wednesday’s season-opening victory over Glendale College. “But we’ve been practicing really well, so I feel like we can take some of the parts we had last year and incorporate it into this season. Our mindset is to start off at a high level, and then keep working hard.”
Bito, a Valencia graduate who earned All-WSC honors in 2017, is joined by returners Shayla Johnson and Golden Valley alum Ciera McGuinness in forming COC’s sophomore core.
“Toni has been steadfast for me all spring and all summer,” said Timmons. “Shayla did a great job for us all spring, and Ciera, in particular, I think she is working really hard to try and be a leader on the court and really do everything she can for the team.
“Those three just really show how hard you’re supposed to work,” he said.
Adding to the mix this season will be six-foot-two-inch middle blocker Grace Ferguson who played locally at Saugus, libero and defensive wiz Elizabeth “Tiny” Gannon who checks in at just 5’1” and valuable utility player Ricki Patenaude who can play three positions.
“We’re really excited about Grace. She was one of our first recruits this summer, and from there we knew we could build around her,” said Timmons. “Everyone has been really flexible, and that’s what we do as a program. We try to train everyone to do everything. Be really good at one thing, but be able to do everything, and they’ve all really bought into that.”
The Cougars took the first step toward their collective goal on Wednesday when they swept Glendale Community College, but should get a better idea of where they stand in the coming weeks, with home matches scheduled vs. defending state champs Irvine Valley College on Sept. 5, and the always strong Long Beach City College program led by famed head coach and Olympic Gold medalist Misty May-Treanor on Sept. 12.
Making the matchup with IVC more intriguing is the fact that Canyons was eliminated by the Lasers in a heartbreaking 3-2 (19-25, 25-13, 26-28, 25-23, 14-16) loss at the state championship tourney in December.
“That will definitely be our first big test. I imagine Irvine is going to be as solid as ever. They always have great coaching, but if we play well it could go either way, and I think everyone knows that,” said Timmons. “A week later we have Long Beach, and I expect them to be very good again.”
COC won’t play any WSC matches until Oct. 3, but the Cougars are already eyeing what could be a very competitive slate of conference opponents. Canyons went 7-1 in conference play last season in sharing a co-championship with Bakersfield College.
“I feel like (the conference) can change every year. We look for Bakersfield to be very strong again. Antelope Valley College has great athletes and they’re always well-coached,” Timmons said. “We’re just going to prepare for every match to be a little harder than the match before it, and if we really believe that and have that mentality, then we’ll be ready.”