Last season, Phoenix Xavier Prep entered the girls volleyball playoffs as the fifth seed in Division I and with a coach — Lamar-Renee Bryant — in her first year at the varsity level.
It would’ve been understandable for some to be skeptical of Xavier’s title chances, despite the program’s lofty reputation. But after winning the championship last season, you’d think the window for underestimating Xavier would’ve closed.
Not so, apparently.
Thanks to a comparatively weak section, Xavier enters the 2014 state tournament as the third seed despite a 34-3 record and a 24-match winning streak to close the regular season.
And with Phoenix Desert Vista going undefeated in power-points matches, it was able to claim the top seed and much of the hype going into the playoffs.
“I think we’re still kind of underneath the radar,” Bryant said. “By Arizona standards, I feel like DV’s kind of at the top of the heap with them not dropping a match during the regular season, and that’s what the polls are based off of.
“I feel like with the (Xavier) Gators, there’s always a target on your back. People know when we come to town. But I still feel like DV’s the team to beat.”
Xavier, with reigning Big Schools Player of the Year Khalia Lanier, and Desert Vista, ranked second in the country by MaxPreps, could make for a fantastic Division I championship match.
But don’t count out No.2 Chandler Hamilton, which features the deadly trio of senior outside hitter McKenna Woodford (356 kills), sophomore middle blocker Preslie Anderson (86 blocks, .390 hitting percentage) and junior outside hitter Olivia Hallaran (276 kills).
Another heavyweight battle could be looming in Division II, where defending champion Phoenix Sunnyslope and top seed Oro Valley Ironwood Ridge are on opposite sides of the bracket.
Sunnyslope beat Ironwood Ridge in the semifinals last year and took two of the teams’ three matches during the 2014 regular season, though all three went the full three sets.
Give Sunnyslope the edge, especially with it having won championships in six of the past eight seasons.
Kayenta Monument Valley has failed to reach the finals since it won the 2010 title under Lucinda Nash, who retired after the season with eight championships in 37 years. But that drought could end in 2014.
Monument Valley went 28-2 and ran away with the top seed in Division III. And though No.2 Glendale Cactus and defending champion Flagstaff are certainly in the hunt, Monument Valley coach Rennell Gilmore is driven to prove that her program is still the standard.
“With Lucinda Nash retiring, everyone thought Monument Valley volleyball was dead,” Gilmore said. “It would mean the world (to win a championship).”
In Division IV, Chandler Prep went a perfect 29-0 during the regular season on its way to the No.1 seed. But it only faced three teams that are also in the playoff field, and just one that is seeded in the top 10.
That lack of serious competition could hurt Chandler Prep in the postseason, so look for a more experienced team like Thatcher or defending champ Northwest Christian to emerge.
Division V appears to be up for grabs, with perhaps as many as 10 teams possessing legitimate title aspirations. Tucson Desert Christian, St.David, Glendale Prep, Pima and Phoenix Arizona Lutheran are all in the mix.
Girls volleyball state tournament
When: Divisions I and II start Tuesday, Divisions III and V start Friday and Division IV starts Thursday. Finals for Divisions I and II on Nov. 12, finals for Divisions III, IV and V on Saturday.
Where: For Divisions I and II, first round and quarterfinals at high seeds, semifinals and finals at Gilbert Mesquite. For Divisions III, IV and V, all matches at Prescott Valley Events Center (formerly Tim’s Toyota Center).
Top seeds: Phoenix Desert Vista (Division I), Oro Valley Ironwood Ridge (Division II), Kayenta Monument Valley (Division III), Chandler Prep (Division IV), Glendale Prep (Division V).
Favorites: Phoenix Xavier Prep (Division I), Phoenix Sunnyslope (Division II), Monument Valley (Division III), Phoenix Northwest Christian (Division IV), Tucson Desert Christian (Division V).
Contenders: Desert Vista, Chandler Hamilton (Division I); Ironwood Ridge, Scottsdale Notre Dame Prep (Division II); Glendale Cactus, Flagstaff (Division III); Parker, Chandler Valley Christian (Division IV); St. David, Phoenix Arizona Lutheran (Division V).
Dark horses: Gilbert Perry, Phoenix Horizon (Division I); Tucson Catalina Foothills, Tucson Salpointe Catholic (Division II); Scottsdale Saguaro, Phoenix Thunderbird (Division III); Thatcher, Phoenix Horizon Honors (Division IV); Kearny Ray, Glendale Joy Christian (Division V).