Coach Rob Vandermay remembers the first time he set eyes on setter Mazi Sarahang four years ago, when a talented but raw group of freshmen showed up for spring volleyball practice.
“We were going through drills and he had such a pair of hands,” Vandermay said. “From the very beginning, he has been a key to our success.”
At only 5 feet 8, Sarahang plays a big role at Camarillo (20-1 in best-of-five matches), which makes its first Southern Section championship game appearance in school history today at 1 p.m., when it plays San Gabriel (17-1) in the Division III title game at Cypress College.
But Sarahang is not the sole reason for Camarillo’s success. The Scorpions, teammates agree, are a working-class team -- a throwback to the days before club teams and beach tournaments took over the sport.
Camarillo has only two players who compete in the off-season, and they joined club teams only two years ago.
“We all do our part, which makes us do well,” said outside hitter Eric Vance, the team’s kill leader and one of the club players. At 6-4, he’s the team’s tallest starter.
“We all do our job, which is vital to the team,” he said. “Teams can’t survive on one or two players. It takes all players to make a winning team.”
Ventura County isn’t a volleyball hotbed, which Vandermay knew when he and co-Coach Ernest Rittenhouse took over at Camarillo in 1997.
But Rittenhouse was familiar with the area. He was the most valuable player on Camarillo’s first volleyball team in 1989.
And the Class of 2003 showed potential, so the coaches set out to make the sport appealing to the athletic but inexperienced group.
“Our main goal was to make volleyball fun,” Vandermay said. “It’s a casual sport, much different than formal sports like football or basketball, so you have to be a little more relaxed with it.”
Their players took to it.
“These guys are so athletic,” Vandermay said. “But they aren’t the beach bums you see at so many other top schools where they grew up playing beach volleyball. They’re just athletes that enjoy practicing and getting better.”
Sarahang’s sister, Miriam, played for the Camarillo girls’ team, so Mazi had some background in the game, though it mostly came from kicking volleyballs around the gym when his parents took him to watch his sister’s matches.
Sarahang wanted to play basketball when he arrived at Camarillo in the fall of 1999 but gave it up during his sophomore year to concentrate on volleyball.
He played for several club teams, but not for long. “I’d play for a week and then stop going,” he said. He hopes to play at Moorpark College next season
Matt Guzman, the team’s best server, says the Scorpions thrive with Sarahang running the offense.
“Mazi is really smart. Opponents can’t predict where he’s going to go,” Guzman said. “He’s always changing it up and showing other team things they haven’t seen. That’s a sign of a smart team.”
Camarillo runs an unusual offense, with three outside hitters sharing spells in the middle alongside two true middle blockers, depending on the rotation.
“We run a pretty weird offense,” outside hitter Mike Power said. “I think it throws the other teams off.”
Camarillo’s only loss this season was in five games to Newbury Park.
“We have a really strong attack, with a lot of guys who can put the ball down,” Power said. “And with a good setter, you can put the ball down.”
Asked how Camarillo will play in its first volleyball title game, Sarahang said it would be business as usual on the court.
“Everyone knows they have a job to do,” he said. “And they will do it.”
What: Southern Section boys’ volleyball championships
Where: Cypress College
Schedule: Division I, Los Angeles Loyola (19-0) vs. San Clemente (18-1) at 7 p.m. in Gym II; Division II, Valencia (20-1) vs. Ventura (13-9) at 4 p.m. in Gym II; Division III, Camarillo (20-1) vs. San Gabriel (17-1) at 1 p.m. in Gym II; Division IV, Sun Valley Village Christian (16-2) vs. Brentwood (17-1) at 4:30 p.m. in Gym I; Division V, Huntington Beach Brethren Christian (17-2) vs. San Juan Capistrano St. Margaret’s (18-2) at 1:30 p.m. in Gym I. (Note: Records are for best-of-five matches only.)
Last year’s champions: Division I, Anaheim Esperanza; Division II, Manhattan Beach Mira Costa; Division III, Anaheim Canyon; Division IV, Santa Ynez; Division V, Brentwood.
Admission: $8 for adults; $4 for children ages 3-13; children under 3 are free.