One of Colorado’s power volleyball conferences — the Centennial League — got even more powerful over the summer.
A league that already included three-time state champion Grandview, talent factory Eaglecrest and tradition-laden Cherry Creek has a new elite team for the 2012 season: Cherokee Trail.
The Cougars were a .500 team a year ago, but a hungry roster of returning players and a talented freshman newcomer has made coach Terry Miller’s team the talk of the summer and early season.
“We only graduated one senior and we had a fantastic showing this summer,” said Miller, whose team finished second in the loaded Northern Colorado tournament over the summer.
“It was such an off year last year,” he added. “It just didn’t feel right and didn’t end on the right note and everybody knew it. We thought the team was fragmented, so our motto this year is team first, period.”
Summer play helped Cherokee Trail players understand the roles they would be asked to fill and it helped with a fast start to the season. The Cougars won five matches and took the title at the 30-team Regis Jesuit Jam to open the year.
Offense is a definite strength for Cherokee Trail, as Miller has two setters in junior Lexi Thomas and sophomore Sidney Wicks who have an array of weapons to utilize.
Standout Kayla Slofkiss — a University of Wyoming commitment — on the right side, Lauren Dunkle in the middle and exciting freshman Shannon Webb on the outside are just a few of the Cougars with the ability to put it away.
“These girls can hit like crazy,” Miller said. “We can have much more of a quick tempo.”
The Cougars vaulted themselves into a preseason top 5 team in Class 5A, but sitting at the top coming into the year was a traditional Aurora power, Grandview.
The Wolves lost in the 5A state championship match to juggernaut Chaparral last season and are definite contenders.
Another rising team, Doherty, swept Grandview in its 2012 opener, but veteran coach Patty Childress knows she has the talent for another strong season and title run.
Cat Denney is Grandview’s only senior regular, so juniors Alyssa Svalberg, Kylie Copple, Morgan Montgomery and Sydney Ederhoff and sophomore Haley Mclaren have time to build together for the present and the future.
Childress plans to employ a two-setter, 6-2 offense to take advantage of the skills of Svalberg and Copple — a transfer from Arapahoe — a system she hasn’t been able to use since Grandview on the state championship in 2007 behind Lauren Van Orden.
“It’s mostly a matter of figuring out where everybody needs to be,” Childress said. “We have a number of kids who have been on the floor since their sophomore year or earlier, so the experience is nice.”
Eaglecrest is the only team in the city with three Division I commitments on its roster and has six starters back in total from last season’s team that made a run to the 5A state tournament.
Coach Tanya Bond has one of the most highly-regarded setters in the state in 6-foot-1 sophomore Jordyn Poulter, who spent her summer playing abroad with a U.S. youth national team and verbally committed to NCAA championship runner-up Illinois.
Among Poulter’s weapons are senior middle blocker Ruth Okoye and junior outside hitter Taylor Loyd, both University of Denver pledges.
Smoky Hill coach Carrie Glenn has a daunting task in the Centennial League, but seniors Elise Elvove and Alex Chapin should make the Buffs tough.
Regis Jesuit’s “Dream Team” is gone, as nine seniors who helped the Raiders to the semifinals of the 5A state tournament last season have graduated.
Setter Kaitlyn Taggart is the lone holdover and is one of only three seniors for coach Laura Dunston, who has up-and-comers such as Santaisha Sturges, Natalya King and Katie Carlson as she reloads.
Rangeview has a new coach in Larry Deffenbaugh, who arrives with a resume that includes more than 400 career victories.
Deffenbaugh — who has former head coach Doug Walker as an assistant — inherits a team that went 19-3 last season and has a variety of key pieces back in seniors Allie Walker and Hannah Carnes, who will each set and hit.
Defensively, senior libero Amanda Maestas is one of the best in Colorado.
Aurora Central (Paul Reyes), Gateway (Mary Millman), Hinkley (Amanda Riser) and Overland (Chance Dunston) all have new coaches.
Vista PEAK has great numbers to pick from with four levels in its first varsity season and coach Nikki Ciletti believes the 4A Bison will be one of the top teams in the Colorado 7 conference.
Rebekah Tresslar and Kiana Renner on the outside and Heather Bach in the middle form the core.
NOTES: The postseason has a different twist this season, as the district round was eliminated and the top 48 teams — by rankings — will be distributed to 12 regional tournaments. The winner of each regional makes the state tournament, upping the number of qualifiers from eight in years past to 12.
Reach Sports Editor Courtney Oakes at 303-750-7555 or firstname.lastname@example.org
2012 AURORA VOLLEYBALL
Key dates — “Think Pink” Breast Cancer Awareness Month: October; League play completed: Oct. 29; Regionals: Nov. 3 at 12 sites (TBD); State tournaments: Nov. 9-10 at the Denver Coliseum
Aurora 2011 records: Grandview 29-2 (lost in championship match of Class 5A state tournament); Regis Jesuit 26-4 (lost in semifinals of 5A state tournament); Rangeview 19-3; Eaglecrest 18-11 (lost in pool play of 5A state tournament; Gateway 12-9; Cherokee Trail 11-11; Aurora Central 8-12; Overland 5-14; Smoky Hill 4-15; Hinkley 2-15
Aurora 2012 players to watch: Heather Bach, MB, Vista PEAK, jr.; Katie Carlson, LIB, Regis Jesuit, jr.; Hannah Carnes, S, Rangeview, sr.; Breezy Carroll, OH/S, Gateway, sr.; Alex Chapin, LIB, Smoky Hill, sr.; Kylie Copple, S/OH, Grandview, jr.; Cat Denney, MB, Grandview, sr.; Sydney Ederhoff, LIB, Grandview, jr.; Elisa Elvove, OH, Smoky Hill, sr.; Kelsie Hurtado, Gateway, OH/S, fr.; Natalya King, MB, Regis Jesuit, jr.; Taylor Loyd, OH, Eaglecrest, jr.; Erna Lukac, Aurora Central, sr.; Amanda Maestas, LIB, Rangeview, sr.; Jessica McGee, RS, Rangeview, sr.; Haley Mclaren, RS, Grandview, soph.; Morgan Montgomery, OH, Grandview, jr.; Ruth Okoye, MB, Eaglecrest, sr.; Jordyn Poulter, S, Eaglecrest, soph.; Kianna Renner, OH, Vista PEAK, jr.; Kayla Slofkiss, RS, Cherokee Trail, sr.; Santaisha Sturges, RS/OH, Regis Jesuit, soph.; Alyssa Svalberg, S/OH, Grandview, jr.; Kaitlyn Taggart, S, Regis Jesuit, sr.; Lexi Thomas, S, Cherokee Trail, jr.; Rebekah Tresslar, OH, Vista PEAK, jr.; Allie Walker, S/OH, Rangeview, sr.; Shannon Webb, OH, Cherokee Trail, fr.; Rachel Whipple, LIB, Smoky Hill, fr.; Sidney Wicks, S, Cherokee Trail, soph.