When Savannah Spitzer and her fellow seniors on the Cherokee Trail volleyball team arrived as freshmen, they watched their varsity team ride a wave of emotion and talent to the Class 5A state championship.
That championship moment has faded from memory, however, as the Cougars — nor any other Aurora program — has even so much as earned a trip to the Denver Coliseum (the longtime annual site of the state tournament) since then.
A two-year absence is glaring for Cherokee Trail and a number of Aurora programs steeped in state tradition, so the emphasis is big on ending the drought in 2018.
“Nobody on our team has made it to state yet, we’ve been knocked out every year right before,” said Spitzer, a 5-foot-11 middle hitter.
“It’s been a bitter pill to swallow,” the Colorado Mesa University commitment added. “This year, our priority goal is to get there.”
Aurora teams accounted for nine state championships in a 15-year period between 2001-2015 — Grandview won five, Smoky Hill two and Cherokee Trail and Eaglecrest once apiece — but have seen programs from other areas rise to the forefront of late.
Coach Terry Miller’s Cougars appear ready to earn a state berth that has eluded them the past two seasons. Even with some holdovers from the championship-winning team, Cherokee Trail went 12-13 in 2016 and lost in regionals, a step shy of the state tournament.
The Cougars improved to 15-10 last season, but also were eliminated in regionals.
Miller’s team is loaded for a state return with talent and experience. Spitzer and juniors Sydney Cole, Sami Campion and Kealey Marshall all will play their third varsity seasons and sophomore Amaya Messier — a high-level Division I prospect — has good experience as well.
“This is a really, really talented team from top to bottom,” Miller said. “I couldn’t be more pleased. As long as they continue to stay healthy and play together as a team, who knows how far we’ll go. I told them earlier on, I have the keys to a Ferrari, my job is just to tune it up a little bit and watch it run.”
Health was an issue last season when Campion, a talented outside hitter, missed half of the season. The injury bug has already hit this season as senior Alex Henderson has been lost for the year with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
But Cherokee Trail has the talent to overcome the injury, as Cole (a Northern Colorado commitment) and senior defensive specialist Trinity Nguyen (Lindenwood) play big roles in passing and ball control and a high-powered offense features Campion, Messier and Spitzer among others such as senior outside hitter Alyssa Parmelee.
A tight four-set loss to Chaparral — the preseason No. 1 team — in their season-opener showed the Cougars they have definite state-qualifying potential.
“We’re very hungry for it, we know have the talent and the confidence that we’re going to get there,” Messier said. “We just have to keep working hard.”
Eaglecrest and Grandview also used to be state tournament regulars, but have been absent for three and two seasons, respectively.
Coach Tanya Bond’s Raptors went to state every season with former star setter Jordyn Polter — now a senior at the University of Illinois — but her very talented younger sister, Lorrin, has yet to play at state.
Lorrin Poulter (a University of Denver pledge) is eager to get her first taste of state and has the talent around her to make it happen in junior Audrey Black — a 6-foot-3 hitter who — has committed to Iowa, plus junior Gabby Vogt and others.
Bond is eager to get to the state tournament to see how the approved changes proposed by the Colorado High School Activities Association’s Volleyball Committee — of which she is a big part — take effect.
The state tournament has traded the old pool play system and two-day format for a 12-team, Olympic-style crossover format that will be played over three days and will be double-elimination. The move eliminates the meaningless pool play matches and copious tiebreakers that have bogged down the state tournament schedule in recent years.
Grandview has yet to appear at state under coach Rob Graham, who took over in 2016 after Patty Childress’ retirement.
Size might be the ticket to the Wolves’ state return, especially with the addition of 6-foot-6 freshman Lauren Betts, an elite basketball player who decided to give volleyball a try. In Betts (who Graham describes as raw, but developing) along with another hoops player, 6-5 sophomore Addison O’Grady, Grandview has size few other teams do.
Senior outside Elsa Lamphere and senior middle blocker Hannah Skurcenski are varsity veterans and leaders, while libero Sarah Majka is in impactful move-in from an elite program in Tennessee.
Another former state tournament regular is Regis Jesuit, which won just two matches last season. Coach Ellen Miks’ team matched that total in its first two contests of the 2018 season. Seniors Brooke Vercauteren, Alexa Hindmarch and Julia Lantz are among the Raiders’ driving forces.
Rangeview has had some near-misses for the state tournament in recent years and coach Doug Walker’s team will try to make it happen with returning EMAC Most Valuable Player Lexi Hurtado and hitting depth they haven’t had in quite some time.
Coach Simon Moorwood and his Vista PEAK team get better each season and come into 2018 (when the Bison will play at the 5A level) in the wake of a program-best 14 wins last season, while new boss Neal Finch has Overland’s optimism higher than in recent years and Gateway got off to a 2-0 start.
Smoky Hill has a lot of weapons to replace from graduation, but coach Scott Nugent has back senior outside hitter Ashley Mooney to lead the offense and sophomore Ruth Love should have plenty of impact in her varsity debut.
Aurora Central won 11 matches last season and will try to match or better that with a lot of new faces, so coach Barry Lago will ask more of senior Ana De Los Santos, a two-time all-league performer. Hinkley is under new leadership again as Kaaryn McLeod takes over.
Courtney Oakes is Sentinel Sports Editor. Reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected] Twitter: @aurorasports. FB: Sentinel Prep Sports