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Realigned teams sizing up each other

Cottonwood girls ranked best in the newly formed region

Highland's Susan Harris (12) blocks the ball from San Juan's Skyann Flavel at Skyline High.
Highland's Susan Harris (12) blocks the ball from San Juan's Skyann Flavel at Skyline High.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News

Highland High volleyball coach Clint Barnes knows his team has the talent and the experience to make a run at the 4A state title this year.

He also knows, however, that those two things don't guarantee his squad anything.

"I think (the realignment) has offered us a huge opportunity," he said, noting last year's top two finishers in 4A, Lone Peak and Pleasant Grove, have moved to 5A. "It's a great opportunity to perform well, but right now we're just making small mistakes."

Those small mistakes can add up to a big loss if the talented team isn't careful, he said.

"We're not doing the little things," he said. "I don't know how to say it any better than that. Sometimes they're not as attentive as they should be, or we're not aware of certain situations because they're unfamiliar. We certainly have the talent."

The Rams were chosen as the second-best team in the newly formed Region 6, which becomes home to two former 5A schools — Cottonwood and Granger.

Highland is led by junior setter Susan Harris and senior outside hitter Valerie Iloa.

"We're really going to rely on Valerie to stop it up and hit the ball," Barnes said.

Harris' cousin Mel White is just a freshman but will likely start for the Rams at outside hitter this season.

"She played big in her first high school tournament," he said.

The Rams know they'll have their hands full in a region where coaches are still trying to size up the competition. Cottonwood coach Bob Berrett said his squad isn't worried about classification.

"We're not focusing on whether we're 4A or 5A," Berrett said. "Wherever you are, if you're a good team, you're good . . . I don't know much about some of the other teams in the region."

Cottonwood is also a young squad as it lost three key players to graduation, and one other player to a transfer to Brighton.

Freshman Rachel Altland and sophomore Kaili Aiono will start as the team's middle blockers. Karrie Ann Steffensen and Shonie Solomona are the only seniors on the squad.

Junior Tini Mendoza will play libero, a new position for high school teams this season.

"That will make the rotation a lot nicer for us," said Berrett of the position that allows one player to come in on the back row for as many players as a coach needs. "She's on the floor all six rotations for us."

Like most young teams, Berrett knows his team will improve as they gain experience and knowledge about varsity play.

"They'll definitely be better as the year goes on," he said.

East was voted the No. 3 team, while Murray was voted No. 4. The Spartans lost All-State players Lori Baird, who signed with the University of Utah, and Blakely Peppinger, who signed with Boise State.

The team will rely on senior outside hitter Mindy Schvaneveldt for leadership.

"She's our leader and a great all-around player," said coach Wendy Pehrson. "We are young and small."

In addition to Schvaneveldt, sophomore Micah Nemon will start as the other outside hitter. Kristen Lemmert, a junior, will start as the team's setter. The only other senior is Meagan Adams, the team's libero.

Coaches voted Granger the No. 5 team and Cyprus the No. 6 pick.

"We lack experience; however, our talent seems to be pretty good," said Lancer coach Kristin Estes. "With the new region and dropping to 4A, we have high expectations and should be very competitive."

The team is led by Casey Speardon, who led the team with 170 kills last season, Annessa Auva'a, the team's setter and the only Granger player to play club volleyball last year.

Estes said she hopes her team will see what it's capable of on the court.

"I don't know how they'll respond, but I hope they realize it's a new start for them," she said. "I think mentally it will be good for us. We're really looking forward to the season."

Cyprus coach Erin Tanner is also unsure what the new season will bring, but that's because in addition to a new region, she has all new players except one returning starter.

"Sela Tanteoli, a middle blocker, is our lone returning varsity player," Tanner said. "We've got some athletes, so we're hoping we can sneak in there."

She said a large part of the team's success will be in how quickly her players learn their offense.

"Our first tournament all we were doing was reminding kids where to go, when to switch," she said. "We didn't say pass the ball or get your serves in once. . . . I'm starting brand new."

The Pirates lost 10 seniors and several players moved to other schools, but one freshman recruited a lot of her friends to come out for the team.

One player moved into the area. Torle Nenbe played basketball at West Jordan and will likely earn playing time at Cyprus.

"She has incredible athleticism," Tanner said. "Now we'll just have to wait and see if we can teach her how to play volleyball."

West High was voted No. 7, while Olympus was voted No. 8 in the region.

The Titans have a new coach in Sam Vaitai, and the long-time club coach knows he has his work cut out for him.

"I was hired with the understanding that I will try to build a strong program for the school," he said. "The players and parents are very enthusiastic, but they need a lot of help on the basic skills."

The school has cycled through several coaches in the past few years.

They return some talented core players in Cassie and Brittany Christensen and outside hitter Molly Thacher. Naida Kljajic will set for the squad, and junior Kristyl Green will play outside and rightside hitter.

He's offered to stay after practice to give extra help and attention to those who want to put in a little more time. Many of the girls, he said, are taking advantage of the opportunity.

"I don't really feel pressure," Vaitai said. "I know they're going to improve, judging from how hard they've worked so far. We've already set some goals, like making it to the playoffs, and we're going to work really hard."


1. Cottonwood

2. Highland

3. East

4. Murray

5. Granger

6. Cyprus

7. West

8. Olympus