Sept. 1, 2004 - The first major girls volleyball tournament of 2004 will take place the weekend of Sept. 3 as four squads from the Northwest, with four very different outlooks on the new season, take to the court in the Tucson Unified School District Invitational.

Although Canyon del Oro, Ironwood Ridge, Marana and Mountain View will all have at least one game under their belts by the time the Tucson Unified School District holds its annual tournament at Palo Verde High Magnet School, the TUSD Invitational should go a long way toward forecasting how a team's season go.

"I think it will show us where we're at this year," said Marana senior outside hitter Carly Parsons of her team's outlook going into the 16-team TUSD tourney.

The top two teams from each of the four pools will advance to the Gold Bracket the following day. The remaining eight teams will face each other in the consolation Blue Bracket Sept. 4 as well.

Parson's and the Marana Tigers enter the TUSD Invitational winners of their bracket in the past three TUSD tourneys. But despite their success of years past, Marana will have some tough competition from both CDO and Ironwood Ridge.

CDO (19-7 in 2003) will enter this year's tourney with the biggest bulls-eye painted on its back. Last year's TUSD Invitational champs have reloaded and may be stronger than ever. Representing the four team Pool A, CDO will draw Catalina, Santa Rita and Pueblo in its opening round Sept. 3.

With an experienced core of seniors, including 2003's 5A player of the year, Audrey Bockerstette, CDO will be the team to beat. Complimenting Bockerstette and the veteran senior squad is the team's only starting junior, Lindsay Armstrong. The outside hitter has been playing on the varsity level since her freshman year and has drawn comparisons from head coach Melva Lundy to another CDO volleyball legend, Bre Ladd, who now plays for the University of Arizona.

The Dorados won't repeat if Ironwood Ridge (27-16) has its say. The Nighthawks believe they have what it takes to challenge for the region and state's top spot in the 4A. In just its fourth year as a program, Ironwood Ridge is riding the leadership of the four seniors who have been with the team since its inception. The quartet of Lauren Oglesby, Stephanie Slaton, Daisha Petty and Michelle McLain has been dubbed the "Final Four" by head coach Bill Lang and his assistants.

Ironwood will be looking to avenge a loss last year to CDO that eliminated them from the TUSD tournament. Where the Dorados have a lineup teeming with seniors, Ironwood will come at CDO with a balanced starting rotation of three seniors, three juniors and a sophomore. Twice voted most-outstanding player by her teammates, McLain, who led the Nighthawks in assists, blocks and aces in 2003, will again lead a determined Ironwood squad.

"We've raised the bar even further this year, from the coaches to the administration to the players," said Lang of his team's focus.

The Nighthawks get Sabino, Cienega and home team Palo Verde in their first round draw in Pool D.

While Ironwood and CDO slug it out, Marana could be a sleeper team this year and may shock a few teams. The Tigers would love nothing more than to upset the balance early in the year at the TUSD tourney.

"It can definitely set the tone for the year," said Marana senior Destinee Novak. Playing out of Pool B, Marana will face Catalina Foothills, Tucson and Sunnyside in the first round.

Marana, who finished behind Rincon and Ironwood for third place in the region in 2003, returns a talented team that lost only four players from last year's squad. Powering the Tigers in 2004 will be seniors Whitney Lewis at outside hitter and Stephanie Goldman at the setter position. Head coach Cindy Meekin says the talent is in place, now the team must come together as a whole.

"We're doing things well individually," said Meekin. "Now we have to work on our chemistry."

Left in the wake of CDO and Ironwood is Mountain View, but if you ask anyone from the Mountain Lions, things have never been better. New coach Rick Ellis has taken over a girls volleyball team that went 2-15 in 2003. Ellis saw a bad situation with the program that needed to be fixed. Having four coaches in four years was taking its toll on girls and their program.

"We're here to change the attitude," said Ellis. "We're going to make it fun to play again."

The fun will start Sept. 3 when MVHS will take on Sabino, Cholla and regional powerhouse Rincon in Pool C.

The young Mountain Lions will rely on the leadership abilities of team captain Lauren Peppe to guide and compliment players such as middle blocker Caitlin Rand and sophomore outside hitter, Heather Pack.

Games will begin at 2 p.m. Sept. 3 and continue at one an hour through 7 p.m.

With two gyms and four courts, Palo Verde has provided the ideal location to hold the 16-team invitational, a tradition at the school that dates back 18 years. Bracket play will start at 9 a.m. and run throughout the day Sept. 4

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