When Pancho Alvarez accepted the Wes-Del volleyball assistant coach position, he admittedly had no maroon-colored clothes in his wardrobe.
His friend, John Rodriguez, saved him a shopping trip and some cash by supplying him with clothes from when he coached at a club in Texas whose primary color is maroon.
Alvarez still has the maroon clothes in the back of his closet somewhere, but he now proudly sports black and gold as the first-year Cowan coach. Alvarez guided his Blackhawks to their first sectional title since 2006 by beating Wes-Del in the sectional title match Saturday. The Warriors had eliminated the Blackhawks from the sectional each of the previous five seasons, and Cowan brought in Alvarez to halt that streak.
“I interviewed and they said, ‘Be a good guy. Beat Wes-Del. Be a great source of character. Beat Wes-Del. Make sure the game is fun for our girls. Beat Wes-Del.’ It just kept going and going and going,” Alvarez says. “We’re either done and we’ll be content with that or strive to get a rematch with (Indianapolis) Lutheran (in the state finals).”
Class A No. 5 Cowan is three victories away from a state finals berth, and its first hurdle is at 7 p.m. tonight. The Blackhawks (23-10) will travel to Modoc to play Union (16-19) for a regional championship. Union just so happens to be coached by Rodriguez.
Rodriguez took over a dormant program in 2010 and in just three years he has managed to coach Union to its second volleyball sectional title in school history and has instilled some pride into the community in the process.
“Sectional victory is insane,” his daughter, junior setter Lisa Rodriguez, says. “In Modoc, we’re not used to it very often. It’s getting crazy. We’ve got great support in our community.”
Union managed to win the sectional title Saturday with only nine players on its roster. The Rockets only fielded a varsity team this season due to its shortage of players, but with a capable setter in Rodriguez, two impressive hitters in Courtney Kinnaman and DeAnn Kauffman, and a solid group of role players, they survived the opening weekend of the state tournament.
“One of the coolest things that’s happened from my first year to now is everybody knows their role and they accept it,” John Rodriguez says. “We’re very simple in the things that we do. I never believed in this, and I don’t want to call it team chemistry, but kids understand their role, and they’re not too proud to have a little role. We’ve had zero distractions.”
Union players show up after school excited to practice for Rodriguez. Both he and Alvarez coach with a contagious energy, and their teams take on their personalities.
Cowan players describe Alvarez as hilarious. He takes volleyball seriously, but with his sense of humor and overall positive attitude, he manages to ease the tension in the gym.
“He does make a big difference, because he’s really a positive influence on us,” senior outside hitter Audrey Jones says. “Even if we do something wrong, it’s still positive feedback. It’s not negative or punishment for what we’re doing wrong, It’s better reinforcement.”
Given the similarities in their coaching styles and personalities, it’s easy to see why Alvarez and Rodriguez have become tight-knit friends. They even have nicknames for each other.
Rodriguez coached the Munciana 12 Open Peppers this past club season, but whenever his schedule permitted, he volunteered to assist Alvarez with his 16 National Aztecs. At one club match, they nicknamed each other “Rice” (Rodriguez) and “Beans” (Alvarez) on the fly after a momentum-turning play.
The nicknames stuck and now either Rice or Beans will win a regional championship tonight.
As for the loser, he will inevitably take a few moments, a few hours perhaps, to shake off the heartache, but rest assured, he will soon jump on the other’s bandwagon. He’ll be the one there riding shotgun for the rest of the state tournament.