Northwest high school volleyball teams are moving quickly into their 2009 seasons. A glance:
Canyon Del Oro
For the Canyon Del Oro Dorados, the 2009 season is as notable for what is absent as it is for what is present.
After 20 years steering CDO volleyball, head coach Melva Lundy stepped down last summer. Newcomer Kristina Baum has the reins of a program that went 13-12 last season, losing to Phoenix Sandra Day O'Connor in the first round of the state playoffs.
While she's aware of Lundy's absence, Baum is excited about her team's prospects.
"I think a lot of the pressure this season comes from the fact that I am a new coach and I am filling some big shoes with Melva leaving," said Baum. "But I've always loved pressure."
That pressure comes from aiming high – very high.
"The team this year has set their sights on state and achieving what has never been done with the girls' program here at CDO," said Baum.
The Dorados have a combination of veteran leadership and fresh talent.
"We have (5-10 senior outside hitter) Martina Kneifel, who is a solid all-around player, (and) our setter, (5-10 junior) Rachel Gerard is coming back from missing last season due to an ACL tear and has really stepped up into a leadership role this year," said Baum. "Kayla Henry, our junior libero, will also bring some back row leadership for us."
Veterans may have led the Dorados to a 2-1 start in regular season matches as of press time, but one rookie in particular has also played a big role, according to Baum.
"Ashley Ellis is a sophomore middle blocker going into her second year of playing volleyball," said Baum. "She has really improved over the past year and developed as a solid presence on the court — she will be one to look out for in the next three years at CDO."
The Dorados will look to compete in a 4A Sonoran region that counts 2008 playoff teams Catalina Foothills, Flowing Wells and quarterfinalist Sabino as members. "Although our sights are high, we haven't overlooked what's right in front of us in our region and the work it takes to get there," said Baum.
Perennial powerhouse Ironwood Ridge once again started this season with a high ranking (#6 at press time, based on a 4-1 record not including invitational wins) and dominant performances. One might think nothing's changed since last season, when the Nighthawks rolled to a 29-9 record before falling to Phoenix Deer Valley in the semifinal round of state playoff action.
According to Ironwood Ridge head coach Bill Lang, although many faces are the same, the team will look different this year.
"We only graduated four players from last year's team," said Lang. " The problem is that they all played four important positions, including the setter and libero."
"The pressure that exists this season is replacing them with nine returning players that —other than Michaela Christiaansen, Jessica Hall, and Briana Hughes — haven't had a lot of court time in the past," said Lang.
Judging by their overall record of 11-3 (including invitational wins), the newcomers are finding themselves, and Lang has taken notice of their contributions.
"(Senior) Autumn Sanford is a super-athletic player that boasts a 4.33 GPA off the court," said Lang. "She will attempt to carry on the setter legacy at Ironwood Ridge — the program has only had three setters in the past seven years and all have led their team to the state semi-finals as well as earning Player of the Year honors."
Lang also pointed to junior Morgan Eaton, who is "making bigger strides this year and should factor into the mix as another starting middle blocker."
As for veterans, the Nighthawks are well-supplied with talent, according to Lang.
"Seniors (outside hitter) Jessica Hall and (middle blocker) Briana Hughes (return for their third varsity season as well as senior Taylor Stender," said Lang. "As seniors, they've played along with some former IR players that are now starting in college for the past two years. Now it's time for them to perform on their own."
Another returner, junior outside hitter/setter Michaela Christiaansen, is ready for big things, said Lang.
"Michaela makes the case for best all-around player in Southern Arizona," said Lang. "Last season, she led the team in kills and can play anywhere, this year she will be counted on to lead the team in ball-handling and attacking."
Lang and the Nighthawks started the season with a reminder of the standard set by previous teams.
"We always come up with a slogan to define the start of our season," said Lang. "This year it is 'Tradition Never Graduates,' as a testament to the players that remain in the program to carry on the tradition and success we've had in the past."
The Tigers are hoping that a new region will bring renewed success in 2009. Marana finished 8-12 in 2008, but that was in the 4A Sonoran region against playoff stalwarts CDO and Catalina Foothills. The Tigers' competition in the 4A Kino region boasts only one playoff team from last season – Cienega. No other team had a winning record in 2008, and neither Desert View nor Nogales has won a match so far in 2009.
With prospects like this, new Marana head coach Diane Swan said her team is ready to put the past behind them.
"As a team we have decided that last year was just that – last year," said Swan. "This year, we have a whole new outlook. Right now they are right at the brink of playing the kind of ball that will boost us over last year's record for sure."
That brand of confidence is evident in the Tigers' slogan.
"Our motto is 'Back in the Saddle,' the whole thought of picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves off and getting back on horse from last year," said Swan.
Last season may be something to learn from, not repeat, for Marana, but Swan points to some skilled veterans as an integral part of the Tigers' goals in 2009.
"(Seniors) Lindsay Honea and Madison Richards are both captains and have become a critical part of the team — they both are consistent passers, servers and hitters," said Swan. "Lindsay tends to be the spark where Madison is the calm."
Swan was also impressed by the intensity of returning junior Alex Steinmehl. "(She) plays all-out every point," said the coach.
Young players are learning on the court.
"(Junior) Jenna Bodman is a great athlete and just needs to learn the game of volleyball — her sport is softball, but she is picking up the specifics of volleyball very quickly," said Swan. "(Junior) Chelsey Meade is our setter. She is learning to read the floor to make the best decision and doing a great at a very difficult job."
Perhaps the learning curve is translating into wins for the Tigers: at press time, after an 0-4 start to the season, Marana is riding a two-match win streak.
Last year, the Mountain Lions went all the way to the quarterfinals of the state playoffs before losing 3-0 to Phoenix Deer Valley and finishing the season 15-7. However, arguably the top two players from that team, outside hitters Courtne McIntosh and Lauren Hall, have moved on, leaving head coach Rick Ellis with the task of replacing key components on both offense and defense.
Luckily for Mountain View, they have seen productivity on offense from Danielle Courtney. As for defense, in Mountain View's recent 3-0 loss to Ironwood Ridge, Katheryn Horner was able to thwart more than a few Nighthawk scoring opportunities, finishing the game with 10 digs for the 2-5 Mountain Lions.
Watching some of her strongest players graduate following a 2008 campaign that saw the Lions hoist the 2A South region crown and advance to the quarterfinals of the state tournament might seem daunting, but Pusch Ridge head coach Layne Carey sees it differently.
"We have some young players on our team right now, and they get an opportunity to step up," said Carey.
They seem to be making the most of the chance – at press time, the Lions are 5-2, and Carey has seen improvement already.
"I'm really excited about our (Sept. 17) game against Empire (a 3-1 victory)," said Carey. "We finished all the way through and kept our focus – that's exciting for a coach, I can work with that."
She's also happy to be working for another season with a strong core of veterans.
"(Seniors) Cheyenne Link, our setter Kaylyn Grammater and Cortney Beadle – these girls really work," said Carey. "They're great girls and have really stepped up in leadership situations."
As for the team's fresh faces, Carey has been impressed.
"(Sophomores) Abby Maas and Megan Polston have done a great job contributing, they'll give us that competitive edge," she said.
The rest of the season will be about honing that edge to make the Lions as competitive as possible, according to Carey.
"(Our goals are) keeping our focus over the entire season and focusing on defense," she said.