Vee Hiapo is apologetic about the expectations thrust upon her players the moment they enter the Highland boys volleyball program.
Year after year, it’s “championship or bust,” and she knows who is to blame.
“Yeah, that’s my bad,” said the Hawks’ longtime coach. “I do that every year. There’s only one way to go, and it’s all-out on everything.”
The Hawks may still be the most consistent program in the state, but, in their minds they haven’t realized those sky-high goals for an eternity.
Highland made the state semifinals last year and has been the state runner-up three times in the past six years, but doesn’t have a championship since 2005.
Five players on the current team have older brothers who played within the program, some of whom captured a title. Now they feel as if it’s their turn.
“We have 11 seniors on the team, and we’ve worked so hard,” senior setter Collin Ward said. “We want to win it so bad.”
The Hawks thrust themselves into the conversation with an impressive performance in the Brophy Invitational last weekend. Highland dropped a match to Gilbert in pool play, but won the tournament by going undefeated on Saturday.
Highland beat Brophy, Salpointe Catholic and Desert Vista twice to claim the title.
While the Hawks were 10-1 in power point matches heading into the weekend, it was their first big tournament against the other expected contenders after skipping the preseason Chandler Wolf Howl Invitational.
“This tournament says something about us,” said outside hitter Ryan Morrison, who was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. “We wanted to take it. There’s a lot behind it. It’s an intimidation factor, like, ‘Crap, Highland’s out there.’ We have very high expectations for this year.”
The players know exactly what they’re getting into when they play for Highland. Hiapo said several of them have been around the program since they were in sixth grade.
At some schools, boys volleyball is a leisure activity. For the Hawks, it is serious business.
“Coach Vee almost demands perfection,” Ward said. “We get chewed out, but that’s all part of the program. It’s how you come back from being chewed out and perform after that. When you practice that much and have that many repetitions, the goal has to be a state championship.”
Said Hiapo: “Whenever younger brothers come into the gym, they already know the standards.”
Mesa didn’t participate in the Brophy Invitational, and the Jackrabbits are still viewed as one of the best teams in the state. Desert Vista won the first game of the championship match against the Hawks and has title-caliber talent. Brophy and Gilbert, last year’s finalists, certainly aren’t pushovers.
But this is Highland, where seven years between championships just feels wrong, and where an eighth would send out the seniors without any hardware, an almost inexplicable thought.
“(A state championship) is the only thing in our minds,” senior outside hitter Jared Greene said.