Robert Husseman, The Triplicate

For a microcosm of the extent to which the Del Norte High volleyball team has grown this fall, consider Warriors defensive specialist Ericka Alcala. Alcala, a junior, has an effervescent personality that keeps her teammates smiling and laughing.

Fellow junior Ashton Smedley calls her "the spirit of the team." As a volleyball player, Alcala has made big strides in skill - "My passing has improved a lot," she said; "I can read the ball way better (on defense)" - and mentality.

"I went from hardly talking (on the court) and being timid to trying to go for everything," Alcala said. "I was just kind of scared to make a mistake (at the beginning)."

And then there's the physical aspect.

"From the beginning of the season to the end, I can finally do a pull-up," Alcala said with a laugh. "I've come a long way."

Longtime coaches Debbie and Pablo Lorenzi returned to full-time supervision of the Warriors this fall and began whipping Alcala and the rest of the team into shape, physically and mentally. The Lorenzis, who guided Del Norte High to 21 consecutive Humboldt-Del Norte Big 5 League volleyball titles from 1989 to 2009, set expectations of another league title and instilled in the Warriors a belief that they could match them.

"It was a goal that we knew would be hard to reach," Debbie Lorenzi said.

"(The Warriors) took second outright, they beat the league champion - that just tells you how we did grow. They did well."

Del Norte finished its season with a 5-3 HDN Big 5 League record (9-10 overall), advancing to the California Interscholastic Federation North Coast Section playoffs. The Warriors traveled to Sebastopol on Nov. 7 to face Analy High; the Tigers defeated the Warriors, 25-13, 25-7, 25-16, to end their season.

To get to that point was a great accomplishment, as Del Norte lost three of its first four league contests. The Warriors defeated league opponents McKinleyville, Eureka and Fortuna, all on the road, setting up a momentous regular season finale at home against HDN champion Arcata on Oct. 30.

After bidding farewell to seniors Amy Henkell, Brittany Maready, Marissa Van Dyke and Cortney Penner, Del Norte waxed Arcata, 25-23, 25-23, 25-15, to gain sole possession of second place in the league.

"That was a big way for our seniors to end the season," Lorenzi said. "They were a big part of that. We keep telling our seniors, 'You didn't get a league championship, but you did bring up some big goals for the program.'"

It was a major step for a team that played occasionally scatterbrained volleyball at the beginning of the season - thinking too much, instead of reacting.

Alcala cites the Warriors' attendance at the Marshfield Invitational in Coos Bay, Ore., on Oct. 20 as a turning point for Del Norte's mental game. Playing against schools from Oregon, away from the grind of the Big 5 League schedule, coaches' instruction and on-court experience finally clicked.

"We finally realized we're better than that," Alcala said of the mental errors made early in the season. "We've worked way too hard not to (make mental errors). We became one, finally."

Del Norte had played with a competitive skill level even in its most trying periods, and it flourished when combined with the improvement in mentality.

"As far as overall skill, I think we're better than any team in the league," Lorenzi said. "Our passing, the last half of league (play), was just right on. Our hitters and our middles were there. Our outsides became much more consistent and smarter as far as hitting angles and lines. Our blocking became more efficient."

With four seniors on a 13-person roster, the Warriors return significant experience. What they gain from the junior varsity ranks remains to be seen. Del Norte had two sophomores and 13 freshmen on its junior varsity squad, which went 1-7 in league play (5-11 overall)

"They're an interesting group and a fun group," Lorenzi said. "They love the game of volleyball. Because there were so many freshmen, it took awhile for them to understand how to mentally play the game. They found out it wasn't all physical skill but involved a lot of mental skill."

In 2013, the expectation is clear: Come ready to play, with your mind right.

Reach Robert Husseman