Men's Volleyball

Building a Powerhouse — Junior setter Salvador Zepeda (middle), and twin sophomore setters David (left) and Erik Garcia, have helped the Triumph Charter High boys’ volleyball team win the North Valley League title.

In this era of Internet, Twitter, Snapchat and what have you, there shouldn’t be many secrets left in the world of sports.

Still, every now and then something begins as a blip on the radar and evolves into something bigger.

Triumph Charter High, one of three small schools on the Partnership to Uplift Communities’ campus in Sylmar, just may be one of those evolving blips.

Its boys’ volleyball varsity program is young, not playing competitive matches until 2013. Its boys’ team this season is young, with only one senior listed on the roster. They are currently in Division III; that’s not where juggernauts like Granada Hills and Palisades of Pacific reside.

But something’s happening here.

The Jaguars have only played 11 matches, including their contest against North Valley Military Institute on Monday, April 17. All the matches are North Valley League matches.

Not only are the Jags undefeated, they have yet to lose a set. That’s right, 33 consecutive games won.

Triumph Charter may be taking advantage of a weak league. The Jags may just be super hot. But it should also be noted that this is a team whose core could stay together 2-3 years, which should have its fan base salivating at the possibilities.

Coach Ricardo Zuniga doesn’t want to rush the process but he, too, is contemplating what the future might hold.

“I think from the beginning I knew I had something special, with the combination of players and their abilities. And they are willing to listen, not question,” Zuniga said. “The hardest part was to come up with a combination that worked for all, and have to leave some players with good qualities on the bench.”

Part of that core is Jose Nava, 16, a junior, the Jaguars’ best player with 111 kills as an outside hitter. He believes the team is still gelling.

“The team, as a whole, has gotten more into the ‘game’ of volleyball,” Nava said. “Before it was just a sport for some of them. But now we’re all progressing, and we all want to be better.”

Salvador Zepeda, a junior setter, credits the team’s willingness to work selflessly as a unit being a major reason for its success.

“As a team we work together, and we work a combination where we really communicate,” said Zepeda, 16. “If we’re lacking a certain position on the floor we help each other out, and set each other up for a spike or a kill.”

Being part of a relatively new — and not a substantially funded —athletic department does present challenges. And Zuniga has had his share.

He first began here as a director of afterschool athletic programs. In 2015, the girls’ team was without a coach and the program was in danger of being eliminated. Several players, who knew Zuniga from the afterschool program, went to the school administration and lobbied to have him coach the team. When administrators reached out to Zuniga, he said yes.

He didn’t have any budget to work with, meaning no real early matches or tournaments. So Zuniga contacted Poly High, where he graduated from, and asked for a series of scrimmages with their varsity and junior varsity teams. No score would be kept, but the teams could play unlimited matches and prepare for their seasons.

It worked well enough that the Jaguar girls, who were 2-8 in 2015, went 16-2 last year and reached the City Section Division V finals. And, after a couple of years of fundraising, the girls’ team has the money to enter nonleague tournaments this fall.

When Zuniga was asked to coach the boys’s team as well, he found himself in a similar no-budget constraint. He used the same formula to prepare his players for this season, playing as many scrimmages as he could arrange against Arleta (in the summer), Poly and Panorama to get ready.  

And since the Jaguars began their 2017 season on March 6 against Lakeview Charter, they’ve been rolling.

Zuniga has two basic rules for his team: get their serves in — “the number one thing to do is serve at 80 percent or higher rate,” he said —  and play strong defense, trying to hold teams to 10 points or less each set.

“That is wishful thinking, but it is setting a bar,” Zuniga said. “And they are hungry to get it.”

David Garcia, 16, a junior setter, said the team embraces the challenge of playing good defense every set.

“Some games we’ve had ups-and-downs, but most games we have communication, and [so far] zero sets lost,” he said. “We try to keep teams to under 10 points each set. If they pass 10 points, we have to step up our game and get more points.”

David’s twin brother Erik, also a setter, said it’s been fun to watch the young team’s chemistry develop each game.

“We had a good team last year as well, but the schedule was harder,” Erik said “This year our team is good, too. We have a lot of new people, but I’ve seen them grow. Our coach has been improving them more and more.”

Today, April 20, Sun Valley Magnet gets its chance to at least end the Jaguars’ streak. (Results were not available at press time.) The Jaguars, who have won the league, will have two more North Valley matches before the playoffs.

Even with the confidence brought about by the streak — “We don’t need to know how it feels to lose,” Zepeda said — Triumph will not enter the playoffs reeking of self-importance. There are too many other Division III teams they haven’t seen to honestly gauge their chances of winning a title — at least this year.

“I feel like [the playoffs are] a ‘maybe,’” David Garcia said. Added Zepeda, “I’m intrigued to see other teams in our division. I’m curious as to how it will turn out.”

No matter how 2017 turns out, this is just the beginning for this group, Zuniga said.

“I’m not going to say we will win it all,” the coach said. “But we have passing, digging and serving. We have every level to be successful.”

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