The Hamilton volleyball team walked through the door for the first time last season and got a good look at the party going on in the state semifinals. The Huskies liked what they saw.
“I believe last years’ success (making it to the final four) was a huge step for our program,” Hamilton coach Sharon Vanis said. “We played a very good, experienced Xavier team that was used to playing in that atmosphere. We were new to that environment."
Vanis and the Huskies hope to change that this year. Hamilton appears to be a program on the verge of joining the 5A-I elite teams. In the past five years (since the split to 5A-I and 5A-II) three teams have reached the semifinals at least four times.
Xavier and Gilbert have been in the state semifinals five straight times, with Xavier winning four of the last five titles and Gilbert winning the other one. Also, Corona del Sol has been to the semis four times. Hamilton is one of six schools that have made one trip each and the Huskies want to be the first of those six to get back to the semifinals.
“I believe we have slowly built a very competitive program in which the girls believe that hard work and discipline will help carry them a long way,” Vanis said. “Hopefully the experience gained (last year) will continue to help this team."
What helps is having your top players returning. Setter Jordyn Moody enters her senior season as the team leader, and outside hitter Ashli Bellinger and 6-foot-2 middle hitter Payton Bock provide big offensive punch.
But the question is whether or not that punch is enough to surpass Xavier, which again is loaded with talent, and Gilbert, which returns its setter and top two hitters. To get to the semifinals again and take the next step to the finals, the Huskies will likely have to beat one of those two teams along the way. They’ll also have to fend off other up-and-coming teams like Basha, Desert Ridge, Mountain Pointe and Highland.
The 5A-I conference isn’t the only one that has seen teams monopolize the semifinals. In 5A-II, four teams have been to the semifinals three of the last five years, including Centennial, which has been there all five. This year, the two teams that met in the title game, Horizon and Desert Mountain, return the majority of their roster and should go deep into the playoffs.
In 4A-I, Queen Creek will be looking to reach the semifinals for the first time in six seasons. The Bulldogs are trying to join teams like Cactus Shadows and defending champion Sunnyslope as perennial semifinal teams.
Seton Catholic has won two straight 4A-II championships and is seeking a fourth straight trip to the finals, but the Sentinels will be challenged in their own region by Arcadia and Notre Dame.
Teams to Watch
Xavier: Yes, we may be seeing a dynasty in the works with the Gators, who return seven players from last year’s title team, including Bianca Arrellano and Katarina Schulz.
Gilbert: Setter Sarah Beene is one lucky player, because she has weapons to distribute the ball to all over the court. The Tigers’ Penina Snuka is just a sophomore, but is a dominant player in the making.
Hamilton: The Huskies are on the verge of joining the Gilberts and Xaviers in the elite class. Setter Jordyn Moody and Co. are big enough and talented enough to beat anyone, they just have to believe it can happen.
Queen Creek: With Desert Sky Region player of the year Annalyn Sanders returning, the Bulldogs should remain strong. If her supporting cast improves, Queen Creek looks like a final four team in 4A-I.
Seton Catholic: Setter McKenna Ronan will be in her fourth year as starter for the defending 4A-II champions. Outside hitters Lauren Betlach and Haley Lawless are as good as any pair in the state.
Players to Watch
Haley Lawless, 6-3, Jr., OH, Seton Catholic: The big, powerful Lawless was the national freshman player of the year two years ago and has not let up, winning state titles in her first two years at Seton. She belongs in any discussion about who the best player in the state is.
Macey Gardner, 5-10, Jr., OH, Gilbert: This year will be a test for Gardner, who is expected to be out until October with a hamstring injury. This may turn out well for the explosive Gardner, an Arizona State committment who plays 12 months of the year, since she will likely come back rested, hungry and ready for the stretch run of the season.
Madison Serrano, 5-9, Sr., OH, Basha: Was the Bears’ leading hitter and the team’s best passer as a junior, and with setter Kehau Baker returning, her attack numbers should go up even more this year.
Talia Jones, 5-10, Sr., OH, Desert Ridge: One of the more unheralded players in the state may not remain unheralded for long. She had 366 kills as a junior and was also the Jaguars’ best server. Her rise has corresponded with the rise in the quality of the Desert Ridge program.
Jordyn Moody, 5-10, Sr., Setter, Hamilton: A lot is expected of Moody and the Huskies this season after they won 26 matches a year ago and return the bulk of their roster. Moody had 832 assists last year and could hit 1,000 with the kind of talent the Huskies have this season.
Familiar family: His name isn’t exactly new in volleyball circles in the state, but the position is a new one for Brian Hiapo, who begins his first season as head coach at Highland. The Hiapo name is synonymous with volleyball, with wife Vee coaching the Highland boys team and son B.J. winning player of the year honors during his time at Highland (B.J. is now a senior at Brigham Young). The Hiapo’s have been coaching club volleyball with the Molten Volleyball Club in Gilbert for 23 years, and as Brian begins his first season at Highland, he does so with his daughter, Kahealani Hiapo, a 5-foot-6 sophomore defensive specialist.
Rebuilding job: Nancy Corea, who was a standout at Arizona State in the late 1970s and early ’80s, takes over a Skyline program that has struggled to win in recent years. Last year, the Coyotes went winless in power point matches (0-17) and won only three games out of those 17 matches.
Switching gears: Former Dobson coach Breht Mieckowski left the Mustangs in the offseason and is now the coach at Higley. At Dobson, Kelly McLeod takes over.
Sept. 2: Xavier at Gilbert, two of the favorites in 5A-I, meet in an early contest, although it loses some of its luster with Gilbert star Macey Gardner sidelined with an injury.
Sept. 10-11: Westwood Tournament of Champions (At Westwood, Red Mountain, Mesa High and Skyline)
Oct. 8-9: Goldwater Volleyball Festival at Phoenix Goldwater HS
Oct. 14: Horizon at Desert Mountain. The first of two region meetings between these teams that met in the 5A-II title match last year.
Oct. 22-23: Nike Tournament of Champions
Nov. 2-10: 5A-I and 5A-II state tournaments. Finals are on Wednesday, Nov. 10 at Mesquite High School
Tribune Top 5
Xavier: The Gators have so much talent, coach Tim McHale had to devise a new offensive scheme to utilize that talent. Bianca Arrellano will split her duties, working as a setter and an outside hitter, in the new offense, which will utilize the four talented setters the Gators have at their disposal.
Hamilton: The Huskies have setter Jordyn Moody, outside hitter Ashli Bellinger and middle Payton Bock back from semifinal team. Program looks ready to take next step and be a year-in, year-out title contender.
Gilbert: Tigers’ only big loss to graduation was middle Alyssa Dwyer, but they will start the year without star outside hitter Macey Gardner (who’s out until October with a hamstring injury). If setter Sarah Beene and super sophomore Penina Snuka can lift the Tigers early, Gardner will be there late to carry them to a title shot.
Basha: Junior setter Kehau Baker returns for the second year as starter and her maturity will be a big advantage for the Bears. Baker also has the luxury of talented outside hitter Madison Serrano and big middles Megan Byrnes and McKayla Ferris.
Desert Ridge: The Jaguars are not regulars in the volleyball rankings, but they have the talent this year to be a team to be reckoned with. Talia Jones and setter Ashley Sanders are key pieces.
Horizon: Defending champions return five starters, making them the favorites to repeat. Success will depend on the Hess family, Melissa and Nikki. Melissa is a 6-2 senior who will likely move to middle blocker from the outside, while Nikki, a 5-10 sophomore, has only gotten stronger and better as she enters her second year as a varsity starter.
Desert Mountain: The Wolves beat Horizon late in the regular season before falling in an epic five-game championship match. They would love to get another shot at Horizon in the playoffs and have the talent to do it, with top hitters Jocelyn Leichner and Paige Pfeiffer returning.
Chaparral: The Firebirds were extremely young last year, with eight freshmen or sophomores on the roster. Playing in the same region with Horizon and Desert Mountain will only make the Firebirds stronger and more dangerous late in the season.
Pinnacle: The Pioneers are the fourth member of the Desert Valley Region to make the top five, but they have to replace their top two hitters from a year ago. Having 6-foot setter Morgan Richardson back should make life easier on the new hitters.
Ironwood: Eight players return from a roster that lost in the quarterfinals to Desert Mountain.
Sunnyslope: Teams have not been getting real close to catching the Vikings, who are the clear-cut favorites once again. Vikings have a big-time player in Madison Kingdon and return their top-four hitters from last year’s 36-4 year.
Cactus Shadows: Falcons will once again be the team (other than Sunnyslope) to beat in 4A-I. They feature a formidable front line of 6-3 Shan England and two six-footers, Summer Anderson and Carly Lenzen. Anderson is one of best players in state.
Sunrise Mountain: Return eight varsity players from last year’s 30-win, state semifinal team. Will need to find new setter to get ball to hitters like Brianne Glidewell and Madison Durham.
Prescott: The Badgers are one of two 4A teams that won a set against Sunnyslope and return the majority of their team that reached the semifinals.
Queen Creek: The Bulldogs have the majority of their roster back, including region player of the year Annalyn Sanders. Setter Jeni Garvin is also back, as is middle blocker Morgan Tebbs.
Seton Catholic: Nine members of last year’s title team return, including the talented 6-foot-3 Haley Lawless, who begins her junior year as a bonafide player of the year candidate.
Amphitheater: Led by junior outside hitter Taylor Lane and sophomore Kerry Lane, the Panthers were a semifinal team a year ago.
Flagstaff: Bulk of team that took Seton to five games in the state quarterfinals returns. The closure of Sinagua helps team depth.
Liberty: Lions have been making strides each season and have a strong base returning in outside hitter Noel Pauga and setter Angelle Tarango.
Arcadia: The Titans return five starters from 20-13 team from 2009. May have top middle combo in 4A-II with 6-2 senior Sonya Bray and 6-1 sophomore Izzy Miller.
1. Monument Valley
4. Fountain Hills
2. Valley Christian
3. Northwest Christian
4. Horizon Honors
5. Scottsdale Christian
1. Veritas Prep
2. St. David
3. Valley Lutheran
4. Joseph city