After Ross Johnson’s last game as head coach of the Redmond volleyball team in 2006, the Mustangs had just completed a dream season.
The Mustangs made an incredible run at the Class 4A state tournament and took home the third-place trophy. They finished with an impressive 23-3 record overall, including a 9-1 mark in Kingco play. And the Mustangs put themselves in the history books as the highest-placing team ever from 4A Kingco at the state volleyball championships.
Johnson, the coach from 1999-2006, was re-hired in 2008 after he took a year off to spend more time with his family. His wife had just gotten a new teaching position, and it was his turn to “stay home, pick up the kids and be more of a family man.” But he said taking a year off helped him appreciate how much he loved coaching, and how much he missed the great memories that came along with the magical 2006 season, when the team was named the Redmond Reporter Team of the Year.
“I can still name all those kids, I’m still in touch with most of them,” Johnson said. “Going in I know we weren’t the third-best team at state, and anytime you can be a part of a miraculous run like that — you can coach your whole life and never have an opportunity like that.
“I experienced winning, but it wasn’t really about that, it was watching the development of your players, seeing them improve. Maybe we’ll get back there someday.”
The situation now, however, presents another opportunity — to rebuild a once-strong program that collapsed last year after nearly the entire varsity team graduated. The team went 1-12 overall last year, but Johnson is up to the challenge.
“We have a really tough league and a really young, inexperienced team,” Johnson admitted. “It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish. Our goals are to get better, play as hard as we can and see what happens, but making the playoffs would be an awesome goal.”
The 16-year veteran volleyball coach has seen his teams rebuild before, and Johnson has high hopes that the girls playing now will one day develop into a championship-caliber squad.
“That (2006) team could have coached themselves,” Johnson said. “We had such disciplined, trained players, I think I did a lot of coaching their sophomore and junior years, so by the time they were seniors … that’s kind of what I’m hoping here.”
“I’ve seen some really great stuff in tryouts, the kids are really good athletes and try hard. It will be a test of our coaches, our ability, that’s for sure.”
Although the team is rebuilding, the 2008 ‘Stangs are not without proven talent.
Rachel Rosen is one of the league’s best offensive, while juniors Lindsey Elliason (outside hitters) and Joanna French (setter) are strong, athletic girls with varsity experience.
“We also have Taylor Danowski who’s a libero (specialized defensive player), one of the three seniors that we have,” Johnson said. “She played varsity last year, every game. She’s solid.”
Foremost among the team’s strengths is its height. Johnson says that this year’s team is the tallest he’s ever coached, and that he isn’t worried about his team’s ability to block and make kills at the net.
“We were midgets in ‘06 compared to the rest of the state,” Johnson recalled. “This year I don’t think we have a girl in the front row that’s under 5-foot-10, and that’s pretty unheard of.”
Despite their height, Johnson observed that his team is somewhat raw on fundamentals, and in particular getting the ball into the key position for a perfect spike.
“Ball-control wise, it’s a little rough… we definitely need to improve our service,” Johnson said. “If you can’t pass the ball, you can’t play, so we’re really going to work on that. Just about every drill we do all day long has to do with passing or serving.”
“We have kids who can hit the ball pretty hard … if we can just get the ball up there I’m not worried about the hitting.”
Now that Johnson is back, the future of Redmond volleyball looks to be in good hands, and the 43-year-old father of two looks to keep the game fun for his players and the fans.
He makes volleyball meets as big as possible for high school, having music and announcers for starting lineups, and he says that this season the Mustangs will be a team that has the potential to surprise.
“I know that we’re going to be competitive. We might not be able to beat the top three or four teams in the league, but we can give them a run,” Johnson said. “Who knows, anything can happen, but we’re going to have fun and have some kids who are playing with enthusiasm and loving volleyball.”
Johnson starts every pre-season practice with a short team meeting to psych his players up for the season, and the former Northwest University coach firmly believes that another state-contending volleyball team is in the cards for Redmond High.
“I told them a couple minutes ago … it could be this year, next year, or the year after, but we will put a banner up on the wall,” Johnson said. “I have the confidence that it will happen again.”
Tim Watanabe can be reached at email@example.com or by calling 425-867-0353 ext. 5054.