Talent, mental toughness finally converge for Aspen High volleyball in regional run
Skiers play in Lamar on Saturday in their regional tournament
When it came to on-the-court skill, the Aspen High School volleyball team entered the season as strong as it’s been in recent memory. Mentally, however, the Skiers were a bit of a mess and this left them doubting their validity as the fall dragged on.
“They came into this season knowing they have that talent,” AHS coach Brittany Zanin said. “It was a constant race between their talent and their ability to get out of their own mental way. There was this power struggle between those two things of knowing they are good as individuals, but also as a team, the potential is phenomenal.”
As the temperatures outside continued to drop, the Skiers were only beginning to heat up inside the gymnasium. Aspen finished the regular season on a seven-game win streak and finds itself headed to regional play for the first time since 2018 with two games coming Saturday in Lamar.
More than anything, the players credit their mental growth for getting them back into the postseason.
“We used to have not a very strong mental game at the beginning of the season, and we lost to teams we shouldn’t have,” AHS sophomore setter Maddie Lee said. “We came together as a team and we trusted each other more. So, it’s easier to play when you know who is in the back row and you know who is hitting and what they can do.”
The players pointed to the midseason tournament hosted by Battle Mountain in Edwards as a major turning point. Aspen played four games in two days on Oct. 15 and 16, going 3-1 in one of its better showings at the tournament in recent years.
Mostly, it brought the players together in an unexpected way and they haven’t lost since.
“The chemistry that we’ve been able to build over the last three years and the work we put into it, especially this season, it’s finally showing,” senior libero Reese Leonard said. “We were able to actually bond together as a team and realize how much chemistry we had between us outside the court and inside the court. Just playing those four games right in a row and really having to rely on each other and knowing it’s not just skill that’s going to get us somewhere, but it’s also that very important mental piece.”
That success had been a long time coming for the Skiers. The 2018 team went 18-7 overall and was arguably the program’s best since the early 2000s. That was the second and final season with Bailey Holmes as head coach, with her assistant, Zanin, taking over ahead of the 2019 season.
After losing a deep senior class in 2018, Zanin’s first season could be called a rebuilding year, with the Skiers going 5-14 overall. Her second season was overshadowed by the pandemic, with Aspen going 3-11 overall back in the spring in the delayed season.
This fall, in Zanin’s third season, it’s all come together with another relatively veteran group.
“There is something about this team and coming together when they are out of sorts and not at their full level that they actually play even better,” Zanin said. “They’ve just become such better teammates to each other over the course of the season, which is really what it takes. You can’t have six individual players out there. You have to have one cohesive unit and it’s taken us a minute to get there, but knock on wood, we are here.”
A major boon to the team this year was the addition — or return — of some key players. Lee stands out as the team didn’t even have a true setter last season. She was able to practice with AHS last spring, but could not play after transferring in from Cody, Wyoming, with her family. Her father, Jared lee, is the medical director for the Steadman Clinic and brother, Porter Lee, has become a standout in football and basketball for the Skiers.
Along with Lee, Aspen saw the return of senior outside hitter Riley Rushing, who spent her junior season attending a volleyball academy in Florida. She’s the team’s top offensive threat and easily leads all of her teammates in kills, according to MaxPreps.
“It’s really good to come back and have such a fun team,” Rushing said. “And I came back to go play for Brittany because she’s been my coach since freshman year and I felt like I kind of owed it to her to come back because she’s supported me through so much and I wanted her to coach me for my last season.”
This added depth combined with the talent of the returning players has also meant more lineup options for Zanin. The Skiers have a lot of players that can be moved around, a luxury Zanin didn’t have her first two seasons, and this has been paying off big time for the team.
“That options piece has made the difference from the past years,” Leonard said. “We’ve actually had so many different options. A, because we do have a setter, and because everyone has shown up every single day. You can put anyone in the back row or the front row and know they would give it their all.”
Facing their fears
At regionals, Aspen will likely face its most difficult mental test yet. The Skiers are the No. 23 seed in the 36-team field and will compete out of Region 2 alongside No. 2 seed and host Lamar (23-0), and No. 35 seed Stargate School (11-12).
“I feel really confident,” Rushing said. “I feel like that’s going to be such a fun game. I feel like we could pull something out and hopefully come out with a win.”
Only one of the three teams will advance out of the region to make the 12-team state tournament. With a perfect record and playing on their home court, the Savages are the heavy favorites but the Skiers have played their best against stronger opponents and are finally learning how to compete without fear.
“Definitely more excitement than fear,” Leonard said, “just because a large part of all the talks we’ve had and of the actual mental growth is realizing that fear is going to stop you in your tracks. But if you are able to push through it, then that’s when the greatness comes in.”
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The winter prep season is upon us. But before we look toward this year, let’s flashback to last winter and recap what happened between the Aspen and Basalt teams. The 2020-21 winter seasons were overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic, with shortened schedules and cancellations.