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Rich looks like team to beat again

Rich volleyball coach Cindy Stuart is a little nervous this season, even though her team has yet to lose a region game.

"We're young, and it shows," she said. "We're going to be good, but it kind of reminds me of the year we lost to West Desert with all those young kids."

That was the only time in the last 12 years that the Rebels failed to take home the 1A state championship trophy — and that was in 1998. For this program, there's no resting on laurels or past accomplishments.

Anchored by senior Brianna Weston, an outside hitter, the squad is looking to continue its dominance of 1A volleyball. And in a preseason poll of coaches, most believe the Rebels are the team to beat.

Stuart said the team may have the same winning ways, but they will offer some new offensive tricks.

"We're really trying some different things," she said. "We're stretching outside our comfort zone."

The reason, she said, is that when the team came to Salt Lake to play in the tournament of champions, teams that could block the outside hit shut them down.

"I said 'That's not going to happen anymore,' " said Stuart. "So we'll look like a different Rich team. We won't go high and outside all of the time."

The team won the silver division at the Tournament of Champions, losing in pool play only to Cottonwood, 5A's second-ranked team, and Pleasant Grove, 4A's top-ranked team.

In addition to Weston, Stephanie Floyd, a talented outside hitter, returns as a powerful offensive weapon. Stuart has a junior setter in Shalie Shuppe and a junior who plays defense on the back row, and two sophomore middle hitters. Stuart is so worried her team won't face enough competition in region play, she's scheduled some massive opponents in-between those games. Rich will take on Cottonwood and Morgan in nonregion play later this month.

The team coaches voted No. 2 and likely with the best chance at challenging Rich's dominance is at the other end of the state — Panguitch.

"All I do is practice for them," said Bobcats coach Troy Norris of Rich. "You know they're always going to be tough, but it really scared me when they beat San Juan."

The Bobcats have one of the state's best athletes in Halie Sawyer, who switches between middle and outside hitter depending on who the team is playing.

"She can do everything," he said. "We don't have a lot of size, so depending on who we play, I move her around."

Junior Chelsea Birch returns as the team's setter, and some talented youngsters round out the Bobcat roster.

To maintain their intensity, Norris said the team sets goals and measures its improvement regardless of wins or losses.

"We have to try and keep it interesting," he said. "We're young, but they've had a lot of experience playing volleyball."

Coaches also expect to see Waterford, St. Joseph and Whitehorse in the top tier of teams this season.