For the first 10 years of this century, the boys volleyball landscape was startlingly consistent.
There was a set of programs which dominated the local scene, as Mountain Pointe (five titles), Highland (two) and Brophy (two) could always be found at or near the top of the heap.
In the past three years, though, Deer Valley, Mountain View and Gilbert have broken through with championships.
Will Mesa be the next team to take the leap?
The Jackrabbits went 25-10 last season and beat Tucson Canyon del Oro in the first round of the state tournament. Mesa lost to Hamilton in the second round, but pushed the top-seeded Huskies to five games. While the Jackrabbits have been consistent postseason qualifiers, it was their first playoff win since 2006.
Even more promising, the team lost only one senior from last year’s roster — middle blocker Jeremy Noble.
“Twenty-five-and-10 was a great season for us,” coach Anthony Millanes said. “We just said we wanted to build on that, and losing only one kid, there shouldn’t be any reason why you can’t have higher expectations. I’ve never made it past the second round (in 10 years coaching Mesa), and it’s something I’d definitely like to change. I think they know that. They know how to get there this year. The formula’s in place. If kids can keep working hard and stepping up, I don’t see why we can’t be in the final eight discussion for sure, and I’d love to be in the final four discussion.”
Setter J.T. Hatch was a second-team All-Tribune selection as a sophomore last season and is back to lead the way. The team did suffer a blow in December when junior outside hitter Seth Johnson suffered a season-ending torn anterior cruciate ligament injury, but the class is still strong.
It’s something even the seniors on the team realize.
“Our senior class is good, but our junior class leads us,” Michael Schaper said. “They are definitely the anchor.”
Mesa opened some eyes — maybe most importantly, its own — by taking eventual state champion Gilbert to five games last year and then beating semifinalist Highland in the regular season finale.
That taste of success and all the returning talent has given the Jackrabbits some confidence. Mesa swept both Red Mountain and Mountain View in its first two power point matches this week.
“Last year and the year before, people didn’t laugh at us, but they didn’t respect us at all,” Hatch said. “It’s good to know teams (are saying), ‘Oh, I don’t want to play Mesa.’”
The schedule this year is tough. Gilbert and Highland are on there twice, as are Deer Valley, Mountain Pointe and Corona del Sol. Millanes said beating some of those perennialy-strong programs would legitimize what the Jackrabbits are doing.
“We got Highland last year and that kind of woke us up going into the state playoffs, but we didn’t get anybody else,” Millanes said. “I feel like if we can clip the big ones — those programs that are consistently in the top-10 every year — that will give them that final hurdle we need (to clear) before going into the state playoffs.”
Mesa has a good mixture of seriousness and fun. Music blared from a boombox at practice on Wednesday, and players took turns showing off their dance moves. But Schapers said there’s another reason for the music — it makes the players speak louder and communicate better on the court.
When the state tournament reaches its crescendo in May, traditional powers like Highland and Brophy should be in the mix.
But with the way things have aligned, Mesa could very well dance into that conversation, too.
“I get goose bumps,” Millanes said. “I’ve been waiting for the last four (years) because I feel like we’ve had the talent. This group, if you gave them a beach, a party or volleyball, they’d all choose volleyball. It’s huge, because that work ethic is what’s going to get us over the top.”
Teams to watch
Highland: The Hawks made a somewhat surprising run to the state semifinals last year. With several impact players returning, led by All-Tribune second-team selection Ryan Morrison, the Final Four might be a disappointment this season.
Mesa: The Jackrabbits haven’t been among the elite teams recently but have a lot of talent back from last year’s 25-10 team, led by setter J.T. Hatch. A season-ending ACL injury to Seth Johnson is a tough loss.
Brophy: The Broncos lost a lot of talent from last year’s runners-up, including All-Tribune first team outside hitter Nick Benson, but Jake Kufel and Ryne Benson are back for this perennially strong program.
Gilbert: The losses of Player of the Year Cody Martin and Ty Hutchins will be tough to overcome for the defending champions, but the Tigers have a program which continually churns out talent. Jarrett Neal takes over as the go-to guy.
Hamilton: All-Tribune first teamer Saige Gonsalves is back but the Huskies have almost all of its offense to replace. Coach Jeff Bader thinks it’s a rebuilding year, but other coaches think the Huskies can compete again.
Players to watch
Saige Gonsalves, Jr., L/OH, Hamilton: Only first-team All-Tribune selection returning. Will need to do everything for Huskies.
Ryan Morrison, Sr., MB, Highland: Led Hawks with 88 blocks last year and had 224 kills. One of several standouts for Hawks.
Kyle Pitman, Sr., S, Desert Vista: The basketball standout is a multi-dimensional force in volleyball as well.
Jarrett Neal Sr., OH, Gilbert: Big things expected following the losses of Cody Martin and Ty Hutchins.
Ryne Benson, Jr., S, Brophy: Older brother Nick Benson has graduated, so it’s Ryne’s turn to lead the way.
J.T. Hatch, Jr., S: The Jackrabbits hope to make the jump to elite, and Hatch will play a big role in how the team fares.
Sergio Wade, Sr., OH, Mountain Pointe: Gym rat is a top defender but will help out offensively this season.
Other players to watch
Brophy: Jake Kufel, Sr., OH; Adam Lincoln, Sr., MB; Chandler: Kameron Casey, Jr., MB; Corona del Sol: Nic Plott, Sr., MB; Blake Pendleton, Sr., OH; Desert Vista: Brock Wilson, Sr., MB; Dobson: Alex Brusnahan, Sr., S; Jonathan Figueroa-Perez, Sr., OH; Hamilton: Zach Melcher, Jr., S; Highland: Jared Greene, Sr., OH; Collin Ward, Sr., S; Bryce Farabee, Sr., OH; Mesa: Jacob Komenda, Sr., OH; Mesquite: Caleb Brough, Sr., OH; Mountain Pointe: Sam Fuller, Sr., MB; Mountain View: Rock Shill, Sr. Opp; Perry: Mitch Harris, Sr., Opp; Alex Berghorst, Sr., OH; Williams Field: Tyler Wilson, Sr., OH; Spencer Newcomb, Sr., OH.
March 1-2: Chandler Wolf Howl Invitational
March 27: Gilbert at Mesa
April 10: Desert Vista at Hamilton
April 12-13: Brophy Invitational
April 30: Highland at Brophy
May 4: Start tournament begins
May 11: State championship
Can the smaller East Valley schools compete? Two divisions were consolidated into one last year, and it wasn’t pretty for the smaller East Valley schools. Even though 24 teams made the state tournament, Seton Catholic was the only local former Division II school from the East Valley to get in. The Sentinels upset Salpointe in the first round before losing to eventual runner-up Brophy in the second. The Sentinels look to improve on that showing, while programs like Williams Field and Higley hope to find more solid footing against the big boys.
Can Gilbert repeat? No team has won back-to-back big division titles since Mountain Pointe pulled the feat in 2008-09. Gilbert will have an uphill battle with the graduation of Cody Martin and Ty Hutchins, but the program does seem to be running on all cylinders. The Tigers were the preseason favorites a year ago but will have a much tougher go of it this year. Coach Jeff Grover, though, has turned Gilbert into a top-tier team year-in and year-out. It will be interesting to see what the Tigers do for an encore.
Will Highland get back on top? The Hawks have been close (runner-up finishes in 2006, 2007 and 2010), but they haven’t won a state title since going back-to-back in 2004-05. They made the state semifinals as a No. 10 seed last year and have a lot of talent returning. Highland coach Vee Hiapo has long had that program among the elite and this could be the year the Hawks reach the pinnacle again.