Heads nod in agreement as Paul Shimek tells his team they’re going to win a state title.
It’s the first practice of the season for the 2016 Fossil Ridge High School volleyball team and no one doubts that coach’s claim can come true.
Fast-forward three months and the SaberCats are the No. 1 seed in this weekend’s Class 5A tournament and four wins away from winning a championship.
The journey started more than a year ago when a young Fossil Ridge team had a solid (16-9) 2015, but one that served like a redshirt season.
The SaberCats knew all but one player from 2015 would be back this year, and they took their lumps, learning lessons necessary to make this team dominant.
“We changed our mindset from playing not to lose, to playing to win state from the beginning,” senior libero Lauren Rice said. “Our first practice, Paul walked out and was like, ‘We’re winning state this year.’ I think all of us were like, ‘Yeah, we are.’ We have so much talent.”
Fossil Ridge tied for first in the Front Range League and won its region on the way to a 22-3 record so far this year. That success is tied directly to last year.
A group of freshman came in 2015 and grabbed many key roles on the team. Freshman were the top three kill leaders in 2015 and three of the top four in blocks.
That can be tricky for a team to handle, with older players losing playing time to freshman. That wasn’t the case, though.
“Coming in as a freshman, I was terrified of upperclassmen,” said sophomore Catie Semadeni, who is second on the team in kills each of her first two years. “It’s scary, but they were like big sisters to me. The team just brought me in and accepted me and accepted everyone else.”
Rice says the team is a bunch of best friends. The upperclassmen drive the younger ones to lunch or other out-of-school activities, and they live and play by the motto of “for each other.”
The comfort from those bonds has let the huge talent on the roster take over. Semadeni has 239 kills (2.8 per set). Riley Zuhn is one of the top players at her age and a verbal commit to defending national champion Nebraska. She leads the team with 258 kills (3.3 per set). Another sophomore, Mataya Megson, leads the team with 64 blocks.
“We’re more experienced and I think there’s more leadership, especially from us that were on varsity last year,” Zuhn said. “We’re more comfortable and can play looser.”
The young talent is perfectly complimented by experienced leaders. Senior Brynn Montgomery, who will play in college at North Carolina Wilmington, has 478 assists, 221 digs and 55 aces. Junior Tyler Lindgren has 467 assists and 221 digs. Rice has 319 digs.
On the path to try and win their first state title, the SaberCats face Highlands Ranch (9:30 a.m.) and Coronado (3:30 p.m.) in pool play Friday at the Denver Coliseum. The winner advances to the semifinals Saturday afternoon.
The 5A title match is 7 p.m. Saturday at the Denver Coliseum.
“The fact that we made it to state is really exciting and was definitely one of our goals,” Lindgren said. “We put ourselves in a good position. I think everyone’s super-excited. We just want to get there.”
Follow sports reporter Kevin Lytle at twitter.com/Kevin_Lytle and at facebook.com/KevinSLytle.
Local state volleyball tournament schedule
All matches at Denver Coliseum
Fossil Ridge vs. Highlands Ranch, 9:30 a.m. Friday
Fossil Ridge vs. Coronado, 3:30 p.m. Friday
Windsor vs. Lewis-Palmer, 9:30 a.m. Friday
Windsor vs. Berthoud, 9:30 a.m. Saturday
Resurrection Christian vs. Colorado Springs Christian, 6:30 p.m. Friday
Resurrection Christian vs. Delta, 11 a.m. Saturday
Semifinals (all classes)
After pool play, approximately 2 p.m. Saturday
Finals (all classes)
7 p.m. Saturday