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Rich likely to dominate 1A in volleyball — again

Perennial champ is strong this season despite losing star

SHARE Rich likely to dominate 1A in volleyball — again

Ask Troy Norris about his Panguitch volleyball team and he answers quickly and with confidence. Until it comes to whether his team can beat defending state champion Rich High School.

"I don't know," he said after a pause. "I wish I was in 2A."

Rich was voted the top 1A team in the state by all of the coaches who responded to a Deseret News straw poll. The Rebels have won nine of 10 state titles, being upset just once in 2000 by West Desert. Last year in the state championship game, they beat Intermountain Christian in two games after the Lions went undefeated the entire season.

And according to their coach Cindy Stuart, the Rebels are better this season, despite losing last year's 1A MVP in outside hitter Danelle Peart and returning just two starters.

"We're a very good team," Stuart said. "The junior class has played a lot of volleyball."

That junior class includes outside hitter Kristal Weston, who was the youngest player to be named to the Deseret News' first team in 1A All-state Volleyball. She was injured in a car accident just after the season ended and that kept her from playing basketball for a couple of months. But Stuart said her wrist and hand are fully recovered.

"She doesn't seem to suffer (any problems) anymore," Stuart said. The coach moved her daughter, Sammi Stuart, from middle to outside to fill the hole left by Peart.

The team boasts what is likely the shortest middle blocker in high school varsity volleyball in Misty Groll.

"She's probably 5-1 or 5-2," Stuart said. "But she gets up there."

The other three starters are setter Jillian Kennedy, middle blocker Katie Erickson and Belinda Kennedy (no relation to Jillian).

Rich has started the season well, even beating out-of-state rival Cokeville, Wyo., in a preseason tournament. In the same tournament, the Rebels beat one of the largest schools in Wyoming (Gillette), the defending state champion.

There is only one thing that could possibly derail Rich, according to their coach.

"We'll do real good, except for the fact that it's going to be hard to keep them motivated," Stuart said. The team works out three hours a day only to take on teams it beats in less than an hour. She said when the Utah High School Activities Association reorganized the regions this past summer, they added two schools — Duchesne and Uintah River.

That means Rich had to drop two other games as each 1A team can only play 16 games, and tournaments count for two or three, depending on the competition level. It's difficult for the team because they have to travel so far and often win so quickly that its disheartening to the competitive squad.

"It's real frustrating," Stuart said. "I'd rather play great and get beat."

The 1A schools have lobbied UHSAA to change the rules to allow each team 14 games and two tournaments and not count games from the tournament play. Stuart believes they are leaning that direction, but it wouldn't change anything until next year.

In the meantime, she tries to keep the team focused on the more competitive matches without overlooking any team. One thing both she and Norris are looking forward to is a tournament in Richfield that could give a good preview to the state tournament the following weekend.

Panguitch and Rich normally don't play each other unless they meet in the state tournament. But this year, they and ICS, runner-up in the state tournament last year, will meet on one side of the bracket in this tournament.

Norris knows Rich is down the road, but he's got to get his team through what is probably the most competitive region, including Wayne, Escalante and Milford. They've started off well, beating South Summit (2A), San Juan (2A), and Enterprise (2A).

"We're big," Norris said. "If we can block Rich, we'll do well."

1A top-five rankings

1. Rich

2. Panguitch

3. Wayne

4. Waterford

5. Milford

E-mail: adonaldson@desnews.com