If the inaugural 5A Div-II volleyball season proved anything, it was given an equal playing field, Northwest Valley teams not only will compete but succeed at the state level.
Ironwood, Centennial, Peoria and Sunrise Mountain, four Peoria district schools, all advanced to at least the state quarterfinals in 2005, with both Ironwood and Centennial advancing to the tournament semifinals.
For Ironwood (32-8), going to semifinals was something the program hadn’t done since winning the 4A state title in 1995.
Centennial’s (27-11) semifinal run was their third trip to the final four in the last six years under seventh-year coach Carly Bourland.
At Peoria, the Panthers got out of the first round of the state tournament for the first time in a decade during a 22-15 season while Sunrise Mountain’s 24-14 record, was the most wins in the school’s history.
While the Desert West Region quartet combined to go 104-48 (.684) in 2005 Ironwood enters the 2006 season, which gets underway Tuesday, as the clear-cut favorite to claim its third straight region title. The region also includes Tolleson, La Joya, Westview and Maryvale.
While all three of Ironwood’s rivals saw their top guns graduate, Ironwood returns co-region player of the year Sarah Reaves, a dominant offensive player on the outside. The 17-year-old senior has already verbally accepted a scholarship offer to Arizona State University.
“I think everybody knows who Sarah is, but I’m not sure they know anybody else from our program,” fifth-year coach Kathy Wilson said. “That’s the part that’s exciting to me, because I really feel we have a lot of depth on this team and a lot of players that are going to contribute with big season.”
While many had tabbed Ironwood to battle Desert Mountain for the title last year, the semifinal loss to Deer Valley hasn’t had a negative effect on the team, Wilson said.
“It was a successful season overall, but nobody was happy with the way it ended,” she said. “The girls are very hungry to get another chance in the state tournament and are working hard to make it happen.”
With the 5-foot-10-inch Reaves as the centerpiece, the fifth-year coach said her team should have another dynamic offense this season.
After getting their first taste of varsity competition last year, Wilson said she’s seen huge strides in the games of juniors Chelaine Barrett, a middle, and Brittany Sanford a 5-foot-10 outside hitter.
“The two of them should be big contributors,” she said. “They just look different this season. It’s an adjustment your first year on varsity. This year they’re making better decisions on the court and are hitting with more confidence. They both have really stepped it up.”
Along with some talented hitters, including Madison Orton, the coach said her team should be strong defensively with senior Kim Moses at the libero.
The biggest loss from last year’s team was setter Aumee Barrett. Wilson said she has seen enough from sophomore Kristi Friesen to feel that the team is in good hands.
After reaching the quarterfinals in 2004 and the semifinals last year, Wilson said her team has its sights set on getting to the finals this season.
“I think having the big game experience from last year is going to help us in the state tournament this time around,” she said.
When asked about expectations regarding the Coyotes first season at the 5A Div-II ranks a year ago, Carly Bourl a n d e x p r e s s e d s o m e uncertainty about making the move up from the 4A ranks. She did however explain that the 2005 team would set the standard for future Coyotes teams in regards to 5A Div-II expectations.
After producing a 27-11 record and advancing to the semifinals, before losing to the eventual state champions, Desert Mountain, the 2006 squad will have its hands full to live up to the success of its predecessors.
The main adjustment facing the Coyotes will be playing without the dominant presence of Dana Edington, the 2006 graduate, who shared all-region honors with Reaves.
“It’s obviously tough to lose someone like her,” Bourland said. “Between Dana and Sammy Piazza we had a very powerful duo in the middle. But that’s the challenge of coaching at the high school level. Each year you have different players and you have to decide what the identity of each team is going to be. With this group I really think it’s going to be defense.”
Up front, Bourland will look to senior Elyce Lamphere to provide leadership and consistency at one outside hitter spot while she likes the energy provided by Makenzie Willneff, a sophomore who also plays on the outside. Senior middle/right side Anna Hagstrom also will provide senior setter Sarah Pottle, a three-year starter, another target at the net.
Bourland said her defensive specialists, senior libero Danielle Serna and senior Jenny Makowski, should frustrate opponents all season with their ability to keep balls in play.
“Danielle never wants to come off the court,” Bourland said. “She reads the ball so well, is one of our most consistent passers and is willing to throw her body all over the place. She’s got bruises up and down her legs. Jenny was the star of our preseason camp. She’s playing with a lot of confidence.”
A year after winning 24 games, the most in the program’s history, coach Deb Moore, said pushing that number to 30 is the next goal for the program.
Like Centennial, which ended the Mustangs season in the quarterfinals, Sunrise will have a different look this season after graduating its top two players in Jenni Martineau and Nikki Wanninger, both all-region performers at outside hitter.
“Well those are holes that we certainly have to fill,” said the sixth-year coach.
“Both from a production standpoint, but also a leadership one as well. Those two were here for three years and were clearly our leaders. We’re still seeing who will emerge in that capacity.”
While she lost two important pieces, Moore has eight seniors and seven juniors on a squad that has five players that started a season ago. Her task now is to find who fits where best.
One player entrenched in a spot is senior Ciana Martin, the team’s setter.
“She’s just rock solid, someone you know you can count on,” Moore said.
No matter how they end up lining up, the coach said two strengths should be serving and blocking.
Moore said senior middle Krystal Pratt (6-foot), who was the team’s leader in blocks a season ago, should step up her offensive production in 2006. Joining her in the middle will be senior Kallie Nauertz. They’ll be flanked by outside hitters Alex Worthy, a senior, junior Kara Holtorf and junior Sarah Jones.
The team’s defense should be stronger with the return of specialist Stacie Wolff, a senior, who missed all of last year after an appendectomy.
“It’s going to be a dogfight again in our region, but we want to improve on what we did last season,” Moore said.
Like Sunrise Mountain, the Panthers also saw their two top players graduate in Audie Gonzalez and middle Melissa Harper.
That leaves sixth-year coach Robin McDowell to reshuffle the deck with what she admits is a smallish bunch.
“What we lack in height, we make up for by being feisty,” the coach said. “The strength of this year’s team is that I have girls that can really scramble and will continuously work hard to get touches defensively.”
The challenge is finding enough offense to keep opposing teams on their heels.
McDowell is looking for continued development from junior Leah Orth.
“We need some serious offense out of her,” the coach said. “She’s the only lefty on our team. She’s very quick and has a lot of potential. We just need to work on her consistency as a hitter.”
Sophomore Hilary Toone returns in the middle and provides the Panthers with a quick player at the net and a solid blocker. She’ll be joined by senior Rachel Dodd, who missed all of last season following an injury. The same is true of fellow senior Terra McKinney who will see action at outside hitter. With both players standing at 6-foot, McDowell said she’s got some pieces to work with, including senior setter Ashley Flores.
“A coach can train players, motivate them and do so much from the sideline, but it’s vital to our team to have someone inspiring them between the lines,” the coach said. “We have a ways to go, but with hard work and leadership I feel that the other parts of the game have a better chance of coming together in a timely manor.”