The Gilbert boys volleyball team is knocking on any wood it can find, because this is lining up a little too well.
The Tigers have the best collection of talent in Arizona and finished 16-1 in power point matches this season to remain steady as the state title favorites. Gilbert won both the Chandler Wolf Howl and Brophy Invitational tournaments, usually a predictor of the teams expected to be in the state title mix.
Adversity, meanwhile, seems uninterested in the Tigers.
A potentially troubling knee injury standout Cody Martin suffered during the basketball season has not affected him during volleyball.
And the “neutral” location for the Division I semifinals and championship match this year? Yep, Gilbert High School.
“Everything’s kind of falling in to place,” Tigers outside hitter Ty Hutchins said. “It’s something I don’t want to say because I don’t want to jinx us or anything, but just the fact that the semis and the finals are at this school, that we’ve never won (a state title), that this is probably the best team this school has ever had. If we show up, everything will go our way and it will be a perfect senior year.”
For coach Jeff Grover, it would be the culmination of years building up the Gilbert program, which is now at the same level as perennial powers like Mountain Pointe and Highland.
In the beginning, Grover had to convince the basketball coaches and others at the school to let their athletes play volleyball in the spring.
After that, it was a matter of getting those volleyball players to stay dedicated during the club season. Three years ago, Grover started up a club ball team that consisted of only Tigers players, which put him on par with the other top programs.
“It’s a year-round program,” Grover said. “When I started 10, 11 years ago, there were probably four, five, seven kids at the most who played year-round. The majority of the kids were seasonal. You always felt like you were taking a step back every season to get those guys back up to par. They’d be good by the end of the year, but then you’d have to start all over. We haven’t had to start all over for the last couple years, and that’s been a big part of our success.”
The foundation has been laid, and led by Hutchins and Martin, the Tigers are the team to beat. Now it’s just a matter of finishing it off.
The state tournament begins on Saturday, where Gilbert will start with a bye as a top-8 seed.
There are a handful of teams — Corona del Sol, Brophy, Deer Valley, Hamilton — with the ability to knock off the Tigers. Indeed, Hamilton and Deer Valley did so in matches this season.
But Martin knows Gilbert is the favorite.
“We have a target on our back, but that’s alright,” Martin said. “I use it as motivation and I think the team uses it as motivation.”
Gilbert made the championship match in 2009, losing in four games to Mountain Pointe. It was in the semifinals last season, losing to eventual champion Mountain View.
The players were loose and carefree at practice Wednesday as they soak in their last few days together, where they hope a deep tournament runs ends in joy this time around.
“This is why we do what we do,” Grover said. “This is a fun week. Everything’s on the line.”
The movie script has been written for Gilbert, with a state title needed to fulfill this Hollywood ending.
But these aren’t actors and this championship is not pre-destined.
The Tigers will need to earn it, and there won’t be any opponents willing to roll over in the next week.
“There’s pressure, but that’s sports,” Hutchins said. “All I hope is that we have fun, because if we’re having fun that means we’re playing our best, and when we’re playing our best we’re unstoppable. Then it’ll end up in our favor.”