Confident, experienced Aspen volleyball heads to regionals looking for more | AspenTimes.com

Confident, experienced Aspen volleyball heads to regionals looking for more

Aspen volleyball senior Gaia Murphy sets the ball for a teammate against Moffat County on Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018 inside the AHS gymnasium. (Photo by Austin Colbert).

The Aspen High School volleyball team also made the regional tournament last season, but this year feels a lot different. In 2017, the Skiers had players missing from their first postseason appearance since 2011. The buy-in simply wasn't there under first-year head coach Bailey Holmes, who had spent the three previous years as the team's junior varsity coach.

But this fall, with Holmes back for her second season in charge and a roster full of dedicated seniors, it's a much different story.

"It's very different. The energy in the gym this week has been high. They are all really excited and I think they are going into this with a lot of confidence," Holmes said during Wednesday's practice. "It would just be the icing on top of a really great season. They've had a lot of pressure on them, from not only their coaches, but from everyone else. And they've been feeling that, so I think coming out and winning regionals, or a match at regionals, would help them prove to everybody that they are able to do it."

As the lowest seed in its 2017 regional, No. 34 Aspen lost both its games, falling 3-1 to both No. 3 Faith Christian and No. 22 Rye. Faith Christian beat Rye to advance to the Class 3A state tournament, where it eventually lost to state runner-up Lutheran in the semifinals. Eaton beat Lutheran for the 3A state title last year.

This fall, Aspen heads to Friday's regional as the middle seed. The Skiers, playing out of Region 6, are the No. 19 seed and will have to beat No. 31 Salida (13-10 overall) and No. 6 Valley (16-7) to make it to the 12-team state tournament. Valley High School, located just south of Greeley in Gilcrest, is hosting the three-team regional. Only one team will advance to the Nov. 8-10 state tournament at the Denver Coliseum.

"It is a boost of confidence that we are higher ranked compared to last year," AHS senior Mary Williams said. "Compared to last year we just have such a better dynamic and everyone is super excited. We all want this super bad and want to make everyone proud."

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THE NEXT DYNASTY?

Based purely off wins, this year's team can be considered Aspen's best since the early 2000s, which is believed to be the last time AHS made the state tournament. Those teams featured 2003 graduate Lizzie Suiter, who was Stanford University's starting middle blocker when it won the 2004 national championship during her sophomore season.

Outside of a mediocre 12-10 season in 2008, Aspen volleyball hasn't had a lot of success in recent years. It reached 11-11 in 2016, the final year under coach Matt Bergdahl, before breaking out these past two seasons. The Skiers finished 13-8 a year ago and are 17-6 this season, finishing third in the competitive 3A Western Slope League both years.

"We are super excited. Last year I feel we weren't as dedicated to winning and getting as far as states," AHS senior Zoe Guthrie said. "If we work together and if we definitely come to play then we will get the results that we want. We are a good enough team and we've practiced and put the work in and I think we can go as far as we want."

Win or lose at regionals on Friday, this group of seven Aspen seniors feels it has left a mark. Along with Williams and Guthrie, Gaia Murphy, Jasmin Hanson, Tate Randel, Katie Yocum and Sabrina Turbidy all will graduate after this season. The makeup of the 2019 AHS volleyball roster will feature plenty of unfamiliar names, but the foundation has certainly been put in place for them to succeed.

"The whole atmosphere that we have here … has set up a lot for the younger girls," Williams said. "We've had girls step up and become the amazing volleyball players they are. I think the younger girls are really noticing that and I think that will kind of push them to even work harder."

THE REGIONAL

The regional tournament gets going at 4 p.m. Friday with host Valley taking on Salida. Aspen will play Salida in the second game, which has a tentative 5:30 p.m. start time. Salida, which has a first-year coach, finished only 6-16 a year ago, so this fall has been a major bounce-back season. However, the team had no worse than 15 wins in any of the three years prior to that 2017 season, so it's not a program devoid of recent success.

Valley, on the other hand, is in the upper echelon of Colorado high school volleyball royalty. The program has won a total of four state championships, the most recent title coming in 2012, when it went undefeated. The Vikings' 16 wins this fall is a major step down from much of the past decade, when winning 25-plus games in a single season wasn't out of the question.

Valley was the No. 6 seed at the 3A state tournament last year, going 1-1 in pool play to end its season. Of all teams, it was a 3-0 loss to Faith Christian that knocked them out.

"Last year they came in as underdogs and that gave them something to fight for," Holmes said of the Skiers at regionals a season ago. "They did awesome last year and we didn't even have our full squad. I think that middle position this weekend, plus the whole squad going, is going back to part of the confidence going in."

acolbert@aspentimes.com

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