Super Six teams to watch
1. Xavier: The Gators don’t often lose in Arizona and this team will once again be the one people use as the measuring stick. Even without middle hitter Kat Schulz (who is sitting out her season), the Gators are formidable and deep. Aside from do-everything star Bianca Arellano, Xavier features a lineup of Div. I talents like Abby Hornacek (6-0, Sr., S), Anna Panagiotakopoulos (5-6, Sr., L) and Megan O’Sullivan (6-2, Jr., MB).
2. Hamilton: The Huskies have grown into a perennial title threat. The one spot in the lineup where the Huskies don’t have experience is the setter position. Everywhere else, however, Hamilton is strong. The Huskies feature two of the best front-line players in the state in senior Payton Bock (6-2) and junior Brittany Thomas (who has already committed to Alabama), and one of the best defensive players in Alexa Saba.
3. Gilbert: The Tigers are yet another well-rounded team, but they also have a star to go to in crunch time. Outside hitter Macey Gardner is entering her fourth season as a starter at Gilbert and has perhaps her best supporting cast. Outside hitters Penina Snuka and Cathleen O’Brien give setters Sarah Beene and Emily Masterson plenty of options on the attack.
4. Horizon: Winners of the past two 5A-II championships, the Huskies move up to the top division this year and should fit right in with the state’s best. Horizon returns four starters, including junior outside hitter Nikki Hess, and has perhaps the best collection of sophomores in Arizona, with four of those players standing over 6-feet-1. Tess Clark, a 6-2 middle blocker leads the sophomore brigade, and is joined by 6-4 Christine Johnson, 6-2 Jensen Cunningham and the ‘runt’ of the group, 6-1 Sierra Nobley.
5. Seton Catholic: There’s one thing that has become almost a sure thing in the last six years: The Sentinels will be in the state title game. Seton has won a state title five of the last six years, including the past three in 4A-II. This Sentinel team is perhaps the biggest team coach James Felton has had, with seven players over 6-1, led by superstar senior Haley Lawless.
6. Arcadia: A strange thing happened under the new realignment. The Titans had been battling Seton Catholic the past few years, but the Sentinels chose to play in Division III, while Arcadia will be in Division II, where they’ll go up against Sunnyslope, winners of the past three 4A-I titles. Arcadia is a team that could rise up to challenge Sunnyslope and has one of the top talents in the state in junior outside hitter Izzy Miller. Also, setter Jensen Barton is back, but she may move to other spots on the floor to make room for transfer Stacey Benton, who played for Utah state champion Snow Canyon (St. George) last season.
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First-year impact: Several teams will rely on freshman players this season, including the defending 5A-I runner-up Hamilton, which will open the season with a freshman setter in Roxanne Lake. The Huskies aren’t the only ones that will have youngsters in the lineup. Mesquite will have 5-7 freshman Alicia Heilner starting at right side hitter and Higley may have two freshman hitters in Kayla Newman and Sydnie Martindale. Desert Vista’s Maggie Byrne-Quinne, a 5-10 outside hitter, may not be a starter, but she’s expected to contribute right away.
Hot, hot, hot: Tempe Prep surprised many folks last year when the Knights reached the 2A state semifinals under first-year coach Lisa Barlow. The Knights may not sneak up on anyone since they return five starters, but they do have one edge. Since the school doesn’t have a gym of its own, it rents out the gymnasium at EdOptions High School in Tempe. The gym there is not air-conditioned and Barlow describes playing there as similar to “hot yoga,” better known as Bikram yoga, where the room is at a brisk 105 degrees.
New coaches: Some programs welcome in new coaches this year, including Mesquite, where Jerry Lucio takes over. At Queen Creek, Erica Crismon replaces Jaime Bartholomew; at Westwood, Chelsi Ross begins her first year as head coach, replacing Shasta Millhollin, who moved over to Perry.
Sept. 8 — Gilbert at Desert Ridge: This will be a good early season gauge for both teams. Desert Ridge hopes to make a run in the postseason and how the Jaguars match up against the Tigers will let them know if that is a possibility.
Sept. 9-10 — Westwood Tournament of Champions: Field is usually stacked with championship-caliber teams.
Sept. 27 — Hamilton at Xavier: Rematch of the 5A-I title game a year ago. Xavier may have the edge in the early part of the season due to its experience, but Hamilton will no doubt make this match exciting.
Oct. 21-22 — Nike Tournament of Champions: Nice, late-season distraction for teams battling for power points and section placement.
Nov. 1-7 — State tournaments