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On the volleyball court, the Ironwood Eagles fear nothing. OK, outside of a tiny mouse that sent the group scattering and shrieking prior to Tuesday's practice, the Eagles fear nothing. When it comes to volleyball teams, the Eagles have been the ones doing the scaring the last couple of seasons. In 2004, they were a 5A quarterfinalist, before losing to eventual champion Mountain Ridge. In 2005, they advanced a step further, falling in the 5A Div-II semifinals after a 32-8 season. And last year, the three-time defending Desert West Region champions ran roughshod over whatever team was put in front of them, jumping to a 27-0 start before dropping their first match. Ironwood bounced back to win their next 12 matches before the No. 1 seed fell in the 5A Div-II finals to second-seed Desert Mountain. "I've told the girls we should be proud of where we've been, but at the same time we like to keep things in the here and now," said sixth-year coach Kathy Wilson. "If you reach a pinnacle and are satisfied, you're going to start going backwards. We're not satisfied." The Eagles acknowledge that there will be an adjustment as they start the post-Sarah Reaves era. Reaves, playing at Arizona State University, was a three-year varsity starter who shared Player of the Year honors in the Desert West Region as a junior and won the award outright last year. With five returning starters, the Glendale school is more than comfortable pronouncing themselves as contenders once again this season. "Getting as far as we did last year really motivates the returners," said senior Chelaine Barrett, beginning her third season on varsity. "Sarah is a big loss, but we're going to be a good team all the way around again this year." The players and coaches point out that even with a Pac-10 talent on last year's squad they were still a versatile, balanced attack. That should continue said senior outside hitter Bethany Sanford, who could be the heir apparent to Reaves as the Eagle's top gun. "I don't think it has to be one specific person," the third-year varsity player said. "We've got a lot of girls that are good hitters. If it's my turn, I'll do my best to put the ball down, but if it's somebody else, I feel good that they can do the job." Joining Sanford (5-foot-10) and Barrett (5-foot-10), who makes the move from middle blocker to outside hitter, up front is senior Samantha Morse (6-foot-3) who will patrol the middle. Morse said despite the buildup that came with a 27-0 start, she and her teammates never really let the pressure get to them. Even though last year's champion, Desert Mountain, jumped to the 5A Div-I ranks, leaving Ironwood as the top returning school, Morse said that won't be a burden for this year's team. "I think it's the same principle," she said. "Coach has always asked us to focus on the day. If you think long term, it's easy to get tripped up looking ahead, but if we go out each day and play the way we can play, things usually work out well. We've got the same drive and the same goals as we had last year." If this year's team has a chance to be stronger, it might be due to the improved chemistry between the team's hitters and setter Kristy Friesen, who started as a sophomore a season ago. "It just makes sense that the more you play together the more comfortable you get," she said. "Last year, coming in there was some pressure on me being the newcomer. This year, I think now that I have more experience, we'll do some new things. Mix it up a little. We should have an aggressive offense and we're working to improve our defense." Senior Madison Orton, who may miss Tuesday's opener as she recovers from an ankle injury, likes what she has seen from her teammates so far. "We're very positive with each other," she said. "I try to encourage everybody. Orton said along with the chemistry and talent, the team's experience will benefit them when the postseason draws near. "We know what it will take," she said. "Our program is on that level. We've been good for several years, so our expectations are high." Along with bidding for the team's first state title since 1994, the Eagles also would like to run their streak of region championships to four straight, a mark made more impressive by the level of success the rest of the region has had the last two years. In 2005 and 2006, Sunrise Mountain has been a quarterfinalist, while Centennial advanced to the semifinals each of the last two years, losing last year to Ironwood. "That's really important to us," Barrett said. "We take a lot of pride in this being our region." Overall, Wilson said this year's team could have a different star on any given night. "I think depth is really one of our strengths," she said. "I'm really looking forward to the season. I like this team and feel like several of them really have a chance to step up and have big years. We talk about not having any regrets. Give it your all each day and enjoy the moment." If that's the case, even an appearance by the Eagles newest mascot, the mouse, won't distract Ironwood when they open the 2007 season at home against Cesar Chavez at 6 p.m. Tuesday.
When the 1985 yellow fire truck donated by Rural Metro pulled into the garage bay at EVIT, about a dozen students climbed on board eager to start their hands-on study of the big vehicle in Diesel Technology class.
The Cactus Cobras and Ironwood Eagles have different memories of their trips back to Glendale from Chandler following the conclusion of the 2006 high school volleyball season. No. 2 Cactus brought home the school's first state title since 1992 by winning a thrilling five-game match over No. 4 Saguaro in the 4A Div-I finals. Ironwood fell in the 5A Div-II finale, as the No. 1 Eagles were forced to settle for the runners-up trophy, falling to No. 2 Desert Mountain. On the eve of the 2007 state tournament, both schools appear primed to make trips back to the East Valley on Nov. 10, for the state semifinals and finals. "I think what we did last year at this time is fresh in all of their memories," said Cactus coach Lindsay Patterson. "That know how will help, but they understand you have to take it one match at a time." Both teams will have to get through a first-round match Tuesday and a quarterfinal match Thursday to reach the final four of their respective tournaments, but there's little to suggest that will be a problem for either high school. After dropping four tournament matches this year Cactus breezed to a 17-0 regular season in which they were rarely challenged. The only scare for the team came Oct. 13, in the Goldwater Tournament when junior setter Kelli Dallmann was injured with a badly sprained ankle. While Dallmann sat out her team's last three regular season matches, all wins, Patterson said three weeks worth of rest and rehabilitation should have Dallmann ready to go. The Cobras begin defense of their title Tuesday at home against the No. 16 seed, which was West Valley Region rival Lake Havasu (8-8) as of press time Thursday. In two regular season meetings, Lake Havasu has yet to take a game from the Cobras as Cactus swept the Knights in three straight games. Cactus played one match in the last two weeks, a scheduling oddity that they went through a year ago caused by AIMS testing. Patterson said she has little doubt that her team will be ready Tuesday. "I just wish next week could be here already," Patterson said. "The girls are chomping at the bit. I gave them a couple of days off, but they came back ready. They wanted to work on serve receive, iron out some things. They're excited." If Dallmann, who is also one of the team's top hitters in addition to setting, is healthy the Cobras have perhaps the best 1-2 punch in the 4A Div-I ranks with the junior joining senior middle Megan Johnson. Beyond that duo, Cactus has a supporting cast that covers a lot of ground defensively and is potent offensively. Assuming an opening round win, the Cobras could face another West Valley rival in the quarterfinals, No. 8 seed Millennium. Patterson said she was impressed with the improvement the Tigers have made since an early season matchup at Cactus in which the Cobras dominated. "I thought their blocking and defense were much stronger than that first matchup," she said. The Cobras actually are familiar with a lot of the 4A Div-I field as five of the six West Valley Region squads will be in the 16 team state field. Among that list is No. 11 Peoria (12-5). First year coach Teresa Fuller said that without a region tournament her team was taking the opportunity to touch up on the fundamentals. "We're going back to the basic and working on some skills that you don't find the time to focus on during the season as much as you'd like," Fuller said. "We're also just getting our mental attitude where it needs to be." The Panthers first year coach said her teams fate will be determined by its ability to be consistent. "My starting six have really developed into a cohesive unit," she said. "Our defense is going to have to be huge. That and our passing will be key." Amongst the other potential road blocks, Patterson said No. 2 Sunnyslope, which defeated the Cobras in a tournament match earlier this year, and sixth-seed Cactus Shadows could provide some of the biggest obstacles to their title defense. The Cobras are four matches away from going two consecutive seasons without dropping a best 3-out-of-5 match. 5A Div-II While the Dallmann injury had the potential to derail the Cobras repeat bid, Ironwood's season has been a series of trips to the trainer's room for coach Kathy Wilson's bunch. The laundry list has included a broken hand, a couple of tweaked ankles and even a concussion, but the Eagles, who finished off their fourth straight Desert West Region title, have finally gotten healthy. "We finally got Chelaine (Barrett) back and she stepped in and it was like we hadn't missed a beat," Wilson said. "These girls have played together for a lot of years and they just have a lot of confidence in what they can do together." Through the adversity, Ironwood managed to go 15-2, good enough to earn them a top four seed for the state tournament (as of Thursday's press time the Eagles were No. 2, but they were expected to fall with Deer Valley and Boulder Creek playing Thursday night). Now a team that has gone at least to the state quarterfinals each of the last three seasons finds itself at 100 percent for the first time all year looking at a 5A Div-II bracket that appears open. In one of their first matches since the return of Barrett from a broken hand, the Eagles swept then No. 2 Deer Valley. In impressive fashion they overcame a slow start to win the opening game 31-29. After losing 2007 graduate Sarah Reaves from last year's mix, the Eagles have plenty of experienced players that were vital to their run to the finals a year ago. Offensively, junior setter Kristy Friesen has a powerful hitting group to work with in seniors Bethany Sanford, Barrett and Madison Orton along with middle Samantha Morse. As of Thursday's press time, the Eagles were set to open the playoffs at home against Desert West Region rival La Joya, the No. 15 seed, which Ironwood swept both times this season. Wilson said the adversity her team faced during the course of the year may benefit the team in the tournament. "The biggest thing is we learned to be flexible," she said. "They're resilient. They showed that they'll come together and play harder if something goes wrong. This group is hungry." Deer Valley (13-3) has dropped two of its three matches in the last 10 days of the regular season, however Skyhawks coach Jackie Wallace said her team is going to be fine for the state tournament. "If we win tonight (the Skyhawks played Willow Canyon on Thursday to close the regular season), we'll win a share of the Northwest Region championship and I think that will give us a lot of momentum heading into state," she said. The Skyhawks, who spent almost the entire regular season as the No. 2 seed, had slipped to No. 5 as of press time Thursday. Wallace was confident that a win over Willow Canyon could boost her team a spot or two. "That would be nice, but maybe it doesn't matter," she said. "I really think there are a lot of teams that will go in as underdogs that will feel they have a chance to pull out a win. The big key for us is going to be being consistent. If we can avoid mistakes I like our chances because we don't rely on any one player. Everybody pulls their weight." The Skyhawks top guns though are juniors Izzy Gaulia and Sarrah Davis. The outside hitters are the prime offensive weapons for setter Alyssa Rodriguez. The other area team hosting a first round home match will be the Centennial Coyotes (12-5). Carly Bourland's team, which has advanced to the state semifinals each of the last two years, will open as the No. 6 seed. The Coyotes coach said her team is becoming more versatile offensively giving teams more to think about than junior Mackenize Willneff and senior Leah Bradley. "Things are really clicking," Bourland said. "We're running some more plays offensively to get our middles more involved." Bourland, whose Coyotes have seen a lot of the top seeds, realistically said there are three or four teams that have a shot at winning it. "We saw Ironwood Ridge real early and lost in five games. I feel like we've really come a long way since that point," she said. "As for Ironwood we're going to have to find a way to slow down their middle (Morse). You get used to defending against teams outside hitters, but she has given us problems. Not only does she have a big height advantage, but she's a smart hitter." The Coyotes playoff road has included run-ins with their fellow Desert West Regionals each of the last two years and it appears this year's path will be no different. For the last two seasons Centennial has closed out the Sunrise Mountain Mustangs postseason run in the state quarterfinals. This year it appears as though the two teams will meet in the opening round as the Mustangs (9-8) were the No. 11 squad as of Thursday's press time. Centennial won both regular season matches over Sunrise Mountain this season. "The big thing for us is the level of confidence we play with," Sunrise Mountain coach Deb Moore said. "When we believe in ourselves we play very well." Moore acknowledges that her team won't enter the tournament as a favorite, but she said there are a couple teams in the bottom half of the seeds that have a chance to pull an upset. "I think Marcos, Pinnacle and then ourselves are teams that might not wow anybody, but are very capable of knocking out a higher seed," she said. "We lost some tough close matches, but I think the girls understand that you have to be aggressive. You can't play scared. If we play to win instead of not to lose we can go a long way." 5A Div-I Since the turn of the century the Mountain Ridge Mountain Lions have been one of the top teams in the 5A Div-I ranks. After four straight trips to at least the state semifinals, including a state title in 2004 last year's squad was eliminated in the state quarterfinals. As the 2007 postseason nears the Mountain Lions appear in jeopardy of their shortest postseason run in recent memory. With an 8-9 record the Mountain Lions were the No. 12 seed as of press time Thursday. If the ratings remain unchanged that would mean a trip to Gilbert to take on the fifth seeded Tigers, a squad that swept the Mountain Lions earlier this year. Reporter Marc Buckhout may be reached at 876-2598 or at firstname.lastname@example.org Check westvalleypreps.com Tuesday night for a recap of the opening round matches.