The Hamilton boys volleyball team made the Class 5A state tournament last season as a No. 14 seed and was promptly swept in three games by eventual champion Glendale Deer Valley.
With the loss of five starters, coach Jeff Bader thought a return to the playoffs would be a nice goal to set for this year’s team.
“We kind of thought this might be a rebuilding year,” he said.
And it has been, if clearing a foreclosed home and replacing it with a skyscraper can be considered “rebuilding.”
The Huskies have been the biggest surprise of the boys volleyball season, as they are 20-4 and one of only two undefeated teams left in the power point rankings at 9-0.
Hamilton took another step toward contender status this week by dispatching Brophy on Tuesday and Corona del Sol on Wednesday. Heading into Thursday’s match against Red Mountain, the Huskies had won 16 consecutive contests (power point and tournament), including victories over Gilbert, Chandler and Desert Vista. During the stretch, no opponent has won more than one game against them.
“I’m still pinching myself,” Bader said.
The change began three years ago, when Bader took over the Hamilton program and encouraged his players to participate in club ball during the summers.
With more practice time and extra tutelage from other coaches, the Hamilton players noticed immediate dividends.
“Just being around the sport helps,” junior outside hitter Kevin Gorence said.
However, no one could have foreseen this type of ascension. With only two returning starters, the Huskies were almost starting from scratch, and a 4-4 start at the preseason Chandler Wolf Howl Tournament seemed par for the course.
It was the Ryan Sherrow Tournament in Marana in mid-March, though, that really opened the team’s eyes. The Huskies went 6-0, defeating Torrey Pines (Calif.) for the tournament title. Hamilton hasn’t lost since.
“We had our doubts,” Gorence said. “We definitely had to work for it. This didn’t come easily.”
Bader had his team study the demeanor of successful programs Gilbert and Mountain Pointe to show it how to act on the court. The more even-keeled approach and willingness to shrug off hot or cold streaks has been a benefit to Hamilton.
“I used to get angry all the time on the court, and when I did, it all fell apart,” said Taua Bader, Jeff’s son and the team’s second-leading hitter. “But when we all come together, it works.”
Said Gorence: “If we win, we win. If we lose, we lose. We just move on to the next point.”
For Hamilton, the winning has been much more common lately.
The Huskies will compete in Red Mountain’s Lion Den Invitational this weekend, although with six power point matches in two weeks sandwiched around the tournament, the team’s reserves may get more playing time to keep the starters fresh.
Regardless, Hamilton will get a look at some of the competition it might be facing come tournament time, including Mountain View, Gilbert and Mesquite.
Before the season began, many boys volleyball followers figured those three teams to be in the mix for the state title, but not the Huskies.
“People didn’t think we were going to be that great,” Taua Bader said. “That was fine with us.”
As Hamilton continues to win, though, others have no choice but to pay attention.
Even though the bar was set at reaching the playoffs, it seems obvious that the Huskies can accomplish much more than that.
“We started down here two years ago,” Gorence said as he put his hand down by his knees, “and each year we’re progressing. It’s good. And we want (the state championship), but I don’t think we’re there yet. We’re not even going to worry about it until the playoffs.”
For now, the Huskies will just enjoy the ride.
“We couldn’t have ever imagined this,” Jeff Bader said.