Senior Jonny Bowles sets a ball at Chandler High School volleyball practice.

The Chandler boys volleyball team was one win away from the team’s first state championship in May 2017.

Many of the returning starters and contributors hold the Wolves’ four-set loss in the team’s first-ever state title game appearance as inspiration to get back and win it all this season.

“There’s nothing more motivating than having a runner-up banner on the wall,” junior Braxton Bradbeer said.

Having lost just two of six starters to graduation, and returning 10 players from the 2017 squad, the Wolves come into 2018 with one of the best rosters in the state, which coach Bobby Robson labeled as the most talented he has coached in his four years with Chandler.

However, talent does not always equal dominant success, and Robson said his players know teams have won championships in the past based on grit and toughness rather than mere skill.

“I told them, ‘You are surrounded by a really talented team, and that’s not something that a lot of people get to experience,’ and even a lot of them are coming back next year. Every year’s so different, though, that we can’t just expect we’ll do as well as last year,” he said.

As one of Arizona’s title favorites, the players know they have metaphorical targets on their backs and likely will face teams in each game that are ultra-motivated to knock them down in the rankings.

The remedy is to be as tough on each other on practice days as possible, holding one another accountable in all situations.

“Practice needs to be just as intense as games, and so the games get easier,” senior Mason Mullins said. “Coach told us that even if we get on each other, it’s fine because in games we’re sometimes going to be playing against people we don’t like.”

However, that does not mean the team has to be stressed and not enjoy the season. Many of the Wolves’ top performers play club volleyball throughout the year and simply love the game and playing together.

Though Robson said everybody knows the stakes, the players must focus first on conquering each day’s challenges before even thinking about the playoffs and eventually making a run at the championship.

“At our first practice, everyone was so tight because they thought they had to do more than they were doing,” he said, “but I told them that state isn’t until May 12, so relax a bit. It was Feb. 15, we have a lot of work to do before then.”

And players like senior Jonny Bowles know that looking ahead in the season is dangerous.

So are expectations that 2018 will be just like any other year, Chandler’s runner-up season included.

“It would have been great to win last year, but every loss and every game is a lesson,” he said, “and if we had that mentality of looking too far forward, we wouldn’t have had success in the first place.”

With a plethora of talent and depth in Chandler’s roster, Robson said it is incredibly challenging to divide playing time for boys who start on high-level club teams or who might have excelled on junior varsity in the last season, but that if the players put the team first, wins will follow.

As top-performing high school teams often face, many of the players have been, or will be, recruited to play for colleges. But for the Wolves’ seniors, college volleyball is not a distraction, and this high school season trumps all.

“Honestly, a state championship is much more important than playing at the next level right now,” Mullins said. “We’re all in.”

 

– Reach Eric Newman at 480-898-7915 or at enewman@timespublications.com.

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