At the midway point of the girls volleyball season, it is no surprise that powerhouse Cherry Creek is one of only two undefeated teams remaining in Class 5A.
What might be surprising is the other team — one not with a roster jam-packed with experienced club players — that has yet to experience a loss.
That would be coach Kaaryn McLeod’s Hinkley team, which has quietly picked up 12 wins in as many matches and brought the dream of qualifying for the postseason — something that hasn’t happened for the program in more than three decades — within grasp.
“I never thought we would be 12-0 and they’ve exceeded my expectations already,” said McLeod, who is in her fourth season with the Hinkley program.
“I’ve had a lot of these girls since they were freshmen and many of them have played together for three or four years. …We are really rolling with their camaraderie and trust in each other.”
With conference play just getting underway — which they began with a road sweep of Northglenn Sept. 28 — and 10 more matches remaining on the schedule, the Thunderbirds have already won as many matches in a season as they have in any season in at least the last 15 years and likely longer.
The positive signs were there from the beginning when 60 girls came to tryouts, though not all were able to participate due to COVID-19 restrictions in the district.
Still, it gave McLeod — a dean of students and athletic director at East Middle School — a good feeling and she also knew the type of student-athletes she had to work with, as she has made her high expectations of them on and off the court made clear over her previous time with the program.
Respect for team, opponents and themselves is what McLeod demands of her players, who she is more concerned about developing as young women than players.
The result has been a cohesive team that is constantly striving to reach those expectations and picking each other up when they don’t.
“She knows we can do more than we believe we can,” said senior TennyAnn Hartman, the team’s leader in kills per set.
What the Thunderbirds have done is navigate their schedule without a loss so far, with the toughest test coming in a five-set home win over Kennedy Sept. 21 in which they lost the third and fourth sets and trailed in the decisive fifth before rallying to win 15-12.
Otherwise, Hinkley has earned eight of its 10 wins by sweep and only dropped a total of four sets the entire year, half of them coming in that win over Kennedy.
Junior outside hitter Leilah Swanson has been on the varsity team for the past three years and she’s glad that Hinkley is finally putting itself on the radar.
“Personally, I’m like ‘finally!,'” Swanson said. “I always have high expectations for our team because I know we have so much potential. I’m thankful they are all believing in themselves.”
McLeod knows that losses may come — Hinkley’s match against Rangeview Sept. 30 will be a challenge given that the Raiders swept the Thunderbirds in the shortened spring season — but that wasn’t the goal of the season to begin with.
“I’ve lost many, many matches that we’ve played the best and they beat us, so hopefully we don’t beat ourselves,” McLeod said. “Our No. 1 goal is to play the best that we can. When somebody beats us, they have to earn it. I will never be upset about a loss that we left our hearts out there and did the best that we could do.”
Even if a few losses come, the Thunderbirds’ fast start has put them in position for something that hasn’t happened since the 1990s: a berth in the state postseason.
Hinkley currently ranks No. 25 in the RPI standings, which would currently be high enough to put it in the field of 36 seeds that make state-qualifying regional tournaments.
“That would mean so much to us, we see it up on the banner that we haven’t gone to the playoffs since 1996,” senior Grettel Valdez said. “I think it would be so special.”
Added Swanson about the possibility of making the postseason: “It would mean something is changing with Hinkley and we have accomplished our goal to get us out there and let people know we have a good program, too, we have potential and to show that just because you don’t have certain opportunities that you can’t make the most of what you have.”
McLeod gave her team bracelets that symbolize the rest of the season, which is going by way too fast for any of their liking.
“I had a young lady cry at practice the other day because we are halfway done with our matches and she didn’t want them to end,” McLeod said. “None of us want to stop.”
The other Aurora girls volleyball team that was undefeated through eight matches was Grandview (10-1), which suffered a loss to Mountain Vista, but has gotten back on track with a pair of Centennial League wins going into a showdown with Cherry Creek Sept. 30.
Courtney Oakes is Sentinel Colorado Sports Editor. Reach him at [email protected] Twitter: @aurorasports. IG: Sentinel Prep Sports
AURORA GIRLS VOLLEYBALL RECORDS (THROUGH SEPT. 29)
Hinkley (12-0 overall, 2-0 in EMAC); Regis Jesuit (11-5 overall, 3-1 in Continental League); Grandview (10-1 overall, 2-0 in Centennial League); Eaglecrest (8-3 overall, 2-0 in Centennial League); Cherokee Trail (6-5 overall, 1-1 in Centennial League); Rangeview (6-6, 0-1 in EMAC); Smoky Hill (6-6, 0-2 in Centennial League); Vista PEAK (4-8 overall, 1-0 in EMAC); Overland (3-11 overall, 0-2 in Centennial League); Gateway (0-12 overall, 0-1 in EMAC);