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On team of beginners, Oilers’ old hand stands out

on October 13, 2009

The walls on two sides of Richmond High’s gym are plastered in pennants. Some go back to the 1940s. Mostly, they celebrate league champions in football, basketball and baseball. Track, golf, and swimming teams have left their marks on these walls. The 1993 badminton team – second place in the state – even has its own little share of the wall.

Saephan, right, gives her teammates instruction during practice.

Saephan, right, gives her teammates instruction during practice.

There’s not one volleyball banner, though.

For the most part, Richmond High’s volleyball teams have traditionally struggled. Even at the varsity level, most of the Oilers’ players are newcomers. The best volleyball teams are almost always made up of players who belong to year-round clubs. Richmond’s coach, Roy Rogers, said he doesn’t have a single club player on his roster. To the best of his knowledge, the city doesn’t even have a volleyball club.

The closest thing to a standout player that the Oilers have is Susan Saephan.

Saephan isn’t very tall – a little over 5-feet – or especially quick. She doesn’t strike the ball on kills with the ferocity that the top hitters do. But she has a solid command of the game. And at Richmond High, that sets her apart.

“There’s more pressure, actually, playing with beginners,” she said. “People don’t always know what to do.”

Saephan, a senior, has played varsity volleyball each of the past three years for the Oilers – making her the team’s only four-year starter. On the court, she plays the role of teacher, traffic cop, and cheerleader.

“She’s like a coach on the floor for us,” Rogers said of Saephan. “She definitely saves us some time-outs.”

Besides being the most vocal, Saephan is clearly the team’s best player, and her teammates seem to relax when the ball comes her way, comfortable in the knowledge that she’ll send the ball back over the net safely. Off the court, she paints herself as something of a reluctant leader. But between the lines, she seems at home in the role.

“I like how I can take control,” she said of her status on the team. “But only in games. That’s when we take it more seriously.”

Her instruction and play have helped to settle the young Oilers, but have yet to turn the program into a winner. The team is 0-3 so far, and plays Alameda (5-0) next.

But Saephan says she doesn’t need a winning record to validate her career at Richmond. She’ll leave her mark on the program, but it probably won’t be celebrated on these walls. Her mark will be felt in the play of next year’s team, and the team after that. And for her, that sounds like enough.

“I just hope we can win a couple of games,” said Saephan, who is applying to San Francisco State this year. “That’s all I want.”

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Richmond Confidential is an online news service produced by the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism for, and about, the people of Richmond, California. Our goal is to produce professional and engaging journalism that is useful for the citizens of the city.

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