A season with the Scots: the new NorCal champions
May 25, 2023
The Carlmont varsity boys’ volleyball team added four new trophies to the case this season. The Scots garnered significant wins in league, regional, and state tournaments, the most important of which came against Berean Christian to become California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) NorCal Division III champions.
While some of the athletes have played volleyball for numerous years, some have mere months of experience in their pockets. This team has a unique dynamic. However, they have proved to be elite by becoming champions.
The Road to NorCal
Coming off the 2022 season, the Scots were looking for redemption. After facing unforeseen challenges, the Scots were eliminated in the semi-finals of last year’s Central Coast Section (CCS) championship tournament in a 3-0 loss to Monta Vista High School.
“When it came to CCS, I sprained my wrist two days before and I was the primary hitter, so we lost in the semi-finals,” said junior pin hitter Sean Murphy.
After disappointment in last year’s playoffs, the team was ready to come back stronger and dominate, starting with their campaign in the Peninsula Athletic League (PAL).
“We were pretty sure we were going to win PAL and move on to CCS. We didn’t make it to NorCal last year, so that was a big thing, but mainly, we wanted to win CCS. That was the goal,” said junior middle Devin Engberg.
The Scots started the 2023 season at the Sanger Tournament at Sanger High School. At the tournament, the team struggled to keep up.
“At Sanger, there were some big teams it was probably the most competitive tournament we played so far,” Engberg said. “Honestly, it felt decent. We weren’t keeping up with those teams, but it felt in reach and I believe that next year we can compete with those teams which feels pretty good.”
A vital component of Carlmont’s competitiveness later in the season was the team’s rigorous conditioning routine.
“We haven’t had a day off since February just because it’s either been practice or games. When CCS and NorCal have been happening, we’ve had straight practices,” said junior setter Simon Hua.
As the league season started, the Scots found their footing and rose to an undefeated record in PAL. The Scots still faced challenges, however, when competing against private schools. Throughout the season, Carlmont suffered losses to Saint Francis, Harker, and Bellarmine College Preparatory.
“I think a lot of good players go to private schools and we’ve definitely seen that playing against like St. Francis and Bellarmine in the past, most private schools we play have had a couple of NCAA Division 1 commits. So we get super, super competitive, especially because we all grew up in the same area,” Hua said.
Carlmont’s position as a public high school has made this year a record-breaking season for not only the Scots, but also for the surrounding community. Carlmont became the first San Mateo County public high school to win a CCS championship in the tournament’s history,
“While we did have a perfect PAL season, we didn’t just say, ‘OK, we’ve got what we need, so let’s stay where we’re at right now,’ we kept pushing and pushing, so that eventually when we did reach CCS, we could defeat those opponents,” said junior opposite hitter Kyle Maher.
No matter how much they practiced, the Scots were not without their challenges heading into their playoff tournaments.
“Cyrus (Wong) had an ankle injury going into CCS. Devin (Engberg) had a back injury going into NorCal. I had a neck and back injury. Kevin (Tomita) had a really bad ankle injury after one of our CCS games,” said junior libero Will Won.
The Scots played in spite of their injuries and advanced far in CCS and NorCal.
“But we loaded up on Advil and just played through it,” Won said.
Uniquely, Carlmont’s varsity team is predominantly comprised of juniors. In fact, all of the starting lineup will be returning next season.
“They already have quite a bit of experience under their belt, and they just have this huge window of opportunity to excel within our league, within our sections, and within the state tournament, so looking forward to bigger and better tournaments this year and just trying to push their level of competition as far as I can,” said Carlmont head coach Daniel Nelson.
Instead of an all-state CIF tournament, CIF qualifies NorCal Division I as the equivalent of the state championship. Because there is not an official CIF all-state championship, the next step for the team is a place in next year’s Best of the West Invitational.
“We’re all juniors as well, so next year we’re gonna come back and do it again,” said junior outside hitter Eric Fadeyev.
Scots spike the Eagles to win first championship
Carlmont won its first NorCal championship in a hard-fought game against Berean Christian. The Scots ended their historic season with a 3-2 victory over the Eagles.
The Scots established an early lead against the Eagles in the first set, but the Eagles quickly caught up as the set carried on. Despite Berean Christian’s best efforts, Carlmont won the first set with a score of 25-21.
“In the first set, it was pretty hyped up, and we took away the first set. But as the game went on, we kept trading set wins, which definitely affected team morale,” said Maher.
The Eagles came into the second set reenergized as the Scots worked to match the intensity. The two teams kept the score even until Berean Christian was able to pull ahead and win the set 25-23.
“Our team was going through a lot of emotional highs and lows,” Maher said. “Some people did not feel like they were playing up to our usual par.”
As the game went into the third set, family and friends from both teams packed into Carlmont’s Terry Stogner Gym. Spectators and players felt a new excitement as cheers and chants intensified.
“This was the biggest crowd we’ve ever had, not only from Carlmont fans, but also so many people coming from Berean Christian,” Maher said.
Soon, the Scots reinstated their lead over the Eagles with the third set, which ended at a score of 25-20 in favor of Carlmont. Scots struggled to capitalize off of their momentum, however.
In a set filled with cheers and reminders from the announcer for fans to refrain from entering the court, Berean Christian matched Carlmont’s two sets by winning the fourth set. Closing out the penultimate set with a score of 25-18, both the Eagles and Scots were eager to finish strong and claim the NorCal title.
“We had a little talk on the bench in between sets and got some renewed focus. Then, they just put everything into that last set and smoked them,” Nelson said.
The defense was especially important to the Scots’ victory, with plays from junior middle Cyrus Wong making a big difference.
“It was 12-3 and Cyrus (Wong) blocked a shot that went straight down. It was absolutely wild. That was what we needed to push us over the edge,” said junior opposite hitter Eli Nathan.
Carlmont finished the set 15-4, securing a 3-2 win over the Eagles to win the NorCal Division III title.
“The challenge for me is to put as much load and stress on them as I can in the beginning so that when we get to this point, they already know how to handle it all,” Nelson said.
The Dream Team
In large part, the Scots credit their successful season to a family-like bond within the team.
“We are way more mature as people in practice, and we take things more seriously. Practice gives us more time to develop and become more of a team,” said junior defensive specialist Brendan Chan-Wittry.
Although the Scots seem to have incredible cohesion, their dynamic is a product of years of hard work. The team’s origins began at Ralston Middle School, where Chan-Wittry, Hua, and junior setter Kevin Tomita started to play volleyball.
“I got into volleyball in 7th grade, and I honestly started because I thought it was an interesting sport. The original three were Simon (Hua), Kevin (Tomita), and I,” Chan-Wittry said.
Soon, the original trio grew together by joining the same club team where Fadeyev also played. Throughout the years, more athletes from Carlmont started to play volleyball, which led to the creation of the CIF NorCal championship team.
The isolated days of quarantine facilitated the growth and development of numerous of Carlmont’s athletes. Particularly, Murphy, Nathan, Engberg, and Maher found their start to volleyball in their grassy backyards.
“We played grass volleyball throughout the whole summer in 2020. Eli (Nathan) has a net in his backyard, so we just started playing,” Murphy said.
Their fun times during the depths of COVID-19 led to the assistant coach telling Murphy and Nathan to start playing for Carlmont, and they brought Engberg and Maher with them. From this group, Murphy has seen incredible success with the sport and was named the San Mateo Daily Journal’s Athlete of the Week on May 16.
While this group and the original trio began their journeys in volleyball alongside friends, one of the newest additions to the team, Wong, found his start through an act of spontaneity.
“I received an email from Kevin (Tomita) during Christmas break telling me to play volleyball, and I took the opportunity and decided to give it a try. My teammates dragged me to play for a club, so I focused on volleyball and fell in love with it,” Wong said.
Not only was Wong new to the volleyball team, but he was also new to the United States, having moved from Hong Kong at the beginning of his sophomore year, during which he played for Carlmont’s varsity boys’ football team.
For Wong, the transition between two drastically different sports involved doing a lot of catching up, but receiving a lot of help from teammates.
Although some of the athletes began volleyball years ago with friends, and some began solo, their paths have led them to one another. This conjointness has led them to achieve remarkable things.
“If you check out our record, 38-6 overall, it’s one of the top records in the entire nation. The athletes continue to improve and amaze every time they’re out on the court,” Nelson said.
However, it hasn’t always been the smoothest sailing for this group. Like any other sports team, there were communication issues on the court, but they could be resolved during practice and team bonding throughout the season.
“This season, we developed a lot as players and people. Since we’ve all been in the same cohort, we know everyone’s habits, how everyone plays, and we have very good chemistry,” Tomita said.
Ultimately, they are just a group of boys alongside their closest friends playing the game they love.
“We’ve all had a different journey to get here, but all the differences have made a dream team,” Tomita said.