One of nine underclassmen who helped launch Lathrop High's boys volleyball program in 2017, Ysrael Gutierrez has been part every milestone moment to date.
He'll graduate as the Spartans' first four-year varsity player in the sport, and he can attest to the team's exponential growth since the very first tryout.
“In the beginning being such a new program and a new sport for a lot of us, it took a lot of getting used to,” Gutierrez said. “And it was very difficult at first. We weren't getting the wins.
“We kept working together and as the years went by it became a lot easier. I was learning new techniques and perfecting what I had already learned. By my senior year, I didn't realize how far I came compared to my freshman year.”
Gutierrez and third-year senior Eric Ponce were team captains this season, and newcomer Anmol Humpal was the only other senior on the squad.
The Spartans went from winning three matches in 2017 to 27 last year, and despite losing eight players to graduation and its head coach they started this season 9-2 before the coronavirus lockdown.
Among the graduation losses were All-Western Athletic Conference Most Outstanding Hitter Gabriel Gutierrez, All-WAC first-team outside hitter Tyler Riggleman, second-team middle Adrian Corona and libero Mark Fabian. That left Lathrop with third-year setter R.J. Carmesis and Ysrael Gutierrez as its lone returning starters. Ponce played a utility role off the bench.
“It was like we had to create a new varsity team,” Ponce said. “It was challenging at first because the chemistry wasn't there, but after just a few games that wasn't an issue anymore. We tried to lead the best we could, but what little we had of this season was very good.
“We definitely had a lot to prove this year with eight varsity members graduating. R.J., Ysrael and I really wanted to win league again and we were on track to doing that, unfortunately the season was cut short.”
Gutierrez's role transformed through the years, as did the team. He was a setter on the three-win team, then transitioned to libero as the Spartans improved to 15-10 and made the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs for the first time.
Last season, Gutierrez shifted to middle blocker where his aggressiveness, speed and timing served the team well. The Spartans rolled through WAC competition, winning all 12 of their league matches and 27-3 finishing overall. They also swept Merced for their first postseason victory.
“That team was my family,” Gutierrez said. “That was the team that started our legacy. We were like brothers. There were no secrets between us. We were so close we could tell each other anything, even outside of volleyball.
“There was a different chemistry and connection playing with them, and it made it easier to trust them when playing.”
Replicating that was going to be difficult, but Lathrop appeared to be on its way. The Spartans were well tested in the Stockton Classic where they were placed in the most difficult bracket. That was where they took their only losses of the season, getting swept by upper-division schools Elk Grove and Heritage of Brentwood.
“Win or lose, playing against teams of that skill level is always good,” Ponce said. “It allows us to grow as a team. Taking those losses in the Stockton Classic was not easy but we learned from it.”
The team put it together for what would be its final match of the season. Lathrop hosted defending Valley Oak League co-champion East Union on March 11and struggled to contain front-row standout Flavio Mercado. The Spartans won, 26-24, 25-16, 25-17.
“That was impressive — the best I've seen them play,” Lathrop coach Stephanie Gleaves said.. “These guys trained throughout the year and worked all summer, so it's nice to see your efforts pay off. I just wish we could have finished it out, but at least we went out with a bang.”
It marked the end of Gutierrez's athletic career, as he'll begin his studies in nursing at Delta College. Ponce, who has a soccer background, isn't ruling out playing volleyball at the next level. He'll be attending UC Merced, which has a men's volleyball team. He'll try out, but his priority is on earning a degree in computer science.
Ironically, it was Gutierrez who convinced him to come out for the Lathrop volleyball team his sophomore year.
“Ysrael wanted me to play our freshman year, but I was so focused on academics I didn't think I'd have the time for it,” Ponce said. “Thanks to him, it made my high school experience a whole lot better and I gained a second family. I thank my coaches, Heather Anderson and Stephanie Gleaves for helping me grow as a person and a player. High school would have been a lot different without them.”