Coming off tournament wins in the Catalina Foothills and Brophy invitationals, respectively, Hamilton boys volleyball coach Jeff Bader spoke about his team’s championship aspirations, winning tournaments and having one division for 65 schools in Arizona.
Q: Nearly the entire roster is back from last year’s 29-13 team returned, did you feel like the team hit the ground running from the start?
A: We didn’t need the three weeks (of preseason practice). We wanted to start right away. All of them are playing club as well and beating each other up, and couldn’t wait to play. Practices were hard to get motivated. For three weeks and they’re always playing and practicing was kind of redundant so it was nice to have the Chandler tournament and get those done, and now we have an idea what we want to do moving forward and focus on that.
Q: What did you like about your team’s play in winning the tournaments, especially the Brophy Invitational?
A: It was nice that the boys can be rewarded for their work. They play year-round and to win the tournament. To feel like they could win that is a great thing. I told them on Monday they stayed together as a team whether well or poorly. We’re sticking together and helping each other out, not getting upset point-by-point. That was something since the Catalina Foothills tournament we talked about. It was nice to see them not always play well, but not always worry about it and move on quickly to the next. They showed a lot of maturity.
Q: Saige Gonzalves is a top-notch player, but you don’t necessarily have elite outside hitters or a guy everyone has to plan around, whereas many championship teams in the past have. Can you win it all without that kind of “go-to-player” so-to-speak?
A: You look at teams who’ve won in the past, and they have that terrific go-to guy. Saige is a lot like (Mesa standout JT Hatch), who’s the most rounded, strongest player in the state, and Saige is right with him. Sometimes it’s hard to get that attention and accolades but from day one he’s the guy who makes things go. He does whatever it takes. You’ll never get 99 percent from him, only 100 percent. We have hitters at all spots, not necessarily ones that make everyone sweat, but we have guys who can get it done when the ball goes up. Steady, not flashy, but a lot of guys who are effective and that’s the bottom line.
Q: Will boys volleyball return to two divisions?
A: The coaches would like to see two divisions again. Will we? Probably not. Everyone knows it’s not fair for a lot of teams to battle the bigger schools. It’s what it is, unfortunately. Every coach I’ve talked to wants two divisions. Maybe some out there like one, but we have Horizon Honors. I went to the AD and said, ‘Are you sure they have a volleyball team?’ It’s great but it’s hard to stay motivated and get kids out for a sport when you know that you have to — and can’t compete with — 2,500 or 3,000-student schools.
Q: Money is a factor in all this especially during state tournaments between expenses of putting on tournaments and revenue to offset those costs, do you think it’s hindering the sport’s growth?
A: Do I know for a fact? No, I don’t. I know a couple schools in Tucson dropped programs. I talked to Catalina Foothills coach and they were always in the semifinals and those schools were in the thick of it, and now they get beat in the first and second round. Tucson used to be the strength but they don’t have the boys playing club anymore. They have teams with really good athletes but weren’t competing well because they weren’t playing club or most of the year. Cienega, too. It’s hard to compete now because everyone is playing club up here (in the Valley). Nearly everyone is playing club. I’ve been blessed here at Hamilton that coaches like sharing players, I’ve heard horror stories elsewhere about it, so it’s been a really good atmosphere here for that reason.
Mark Heller is the East Valley Tribune assistant managing editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (480) 898-6576.