SALT LAKE CITY — Morgan volleyball coach Liz Wiscombe is entering her 41st season coaching volleyball, and with all the many ways COVID-19 has changed the sporting landscape, every time she walks into a gym she feels a wave of gratitude.
“After what happened in March (with cancellation of spring sports) and hardly doing anything all summer, I don’t take anything for granted anymore. I hope these kids don’t. I hope they appreciate every opportunity they have because a lot of kids in other states don’t have this opportunity,” said Wiscombe.
It’s a sentiment several coaches shared with the Deseret News as the 2020 high school volleyball season starts to pick up momentum.
“They’re enjoying preseason more than you would normally expect,” said Green Canyon coach Madison Larsen.
Added Timpview coach Charmay Lee, “We’re just blessed and super excited to have a season in general especially with COVID.”
Everyone is optimistic that the season will unfold uninterrupted and state champions will be crowned like normal in November, but for now, volleyball teams around the state are just enjoying the process, whether it’s a practice, match or tournament.
As the season starts to pick up steam, here’s a quick look at all six classifications in Utah and the top contenders.
A year ago, Pleasant Grove beat Copper Hills in four sets to claim the state title, and both are loaded with returning talent as they headline the list of usual contenders in 6A.
“I feel pretty good about this year and the girls feel really good about this year. We feel this is a special season for us,” said Copper Hills coach Silver Fonua.
Leading the way for Copper Hills — the top RPI seed heading into last year’s tourney — are returning all-staters Teniyah Leuluai and twins Aliyah Sopoaga and Asiah Sopoaga.
“We’re undersized, but where we lack there we make up in a lot of other areas. That’s how we went on that run last year,” said Fonua.
Pleasant Grove returns two first team all-staters from last year, Heather Hamson and Mia Peterson, and new coach Kimberly Hawkey is excited to be taking over at her alma mater after former coach Allyce Jones retired.
“This is a top program. There’s a lot of expectations, but these girls, the team, they all know how to win. They know what’s expected of them and they just play to win every single day. It’s there, it’s in their culture and in their blood to do that,” Hawkey said after a win over Lehi last week.
Lone Peak won the previous three 6A state titles, and led by returning all-stater Lauren Jardine, will absolutely be in the thick of the state title race.
Fremont, Bingham and Syracuse are among some of the other top teams in 6A.
Timpview was a No. 3 RPI seed in the playoffs last year and hoping for a deep playoff run, but it ended prematurely in the quarterfinals to Lehi.
Six of those Timpview starters are back, and even though coach Lee would prefer her team stay under the radar that’s not going to happen for long.
“My six of my returning starters have been working really all hard all summer. They’re more dominant than they were last year so I’m expecting a good season for them,” said Lee.
Leading the way are a pair of returning all-state freshman, Silina Damuni and Taliah Lee. They’re among three starting sophomore for the T-Birds who are still young despite the experience.
Even though Timpview may have the most returning experience, the 5A classification is wide open after defending champion Mountain View and runner-up Farmington both graduated the bulk of their top contributors last year.
Lehi bowed out to Mountain View in the semifinals, and with the return of standouts Avery Shewell and Bailee Holland it should be right in the thick of the race again.
While most of the top contenders hail from Region 7, Woods Cross and Bountiful could make some noise up in Region 5 while Park City and Salem Hills will be threats from Region 8.
Park City is led by a trio of senior returning starters, Hayden Goodman, Brookelynn Sapp and Maya Lopansri.
The 2019 season was the first year the UHSAA used RPI rankings to seed state tournaments, and while those seeds held pretty true to form in 6A and 5A, that certainly wasn’t the case in 4A. The No. 4, 6, 9 and 15 seeds advance to the semifinals, sixth-seed Green Canyon claiming the state title.
The chaos speaks to the parity of 4A from year to year, and 2020 should be no different.
“4A is always a tough battle, and I expect a lot of teams to be pretty solid this year,” said Green Canyon coach Larsen.
The Wolves graduated three all-staters from last year, but setter Sarah Blau is back to anchor the squad along with Olivia Chadwick and Livi Longhurst as they look to defend their title.
Even though there are key pieces to replace, Larsen is comfortable with the current trajectory of her team.
“Last year the team we had, most of them hadn’t played varsity the year before, so I feel like we’re starting in the same place we did last year. I’m excited about the team that we have and the girls we have, they’re working hard, they’re learning a lot in the few games we’ve had,” said Larsen.
Desert Hills was the 4A runner-up last year, and with returning all-staters Ellie Chase and Emilee Allred it should be the front-runners again in region 9 and a top contender for state.
Snow Canyon, Dixie, Sky View and Ridgeline are among the other 4A programs hoping to be in the thick of the state tournament in November.
Union’s epic five-set win over Morgan in last year’s 3A state championship snapped a four-year title streak for the Trojans, and those two teams figure to be in the thick of the race once again.
Four of Union’s top contributors last year were all sophomores, and with Kenisten Weaver, Kinslee Drake, Allie Earl and Amelia Stevens all back expectations are very high for the Cougars.
For Morgan, it was loaded with seniors a year ago, which Wiscombe said definitely changes the complexion of her team this year.
“I feel like this year anything possible. We have young kids who are working hard,” said Wiscombe. “We have a ways to go, I’m not going to lie, but I think the kids are improving. They’re in the gym every day, they’re working hard. We’re just going to see where we are by October,” said Wiscombe.
Other teams who figure to be in the mix in 3A are North Sanpete, Richfield, Grand and South Summit.
Enterprise put a halt to North Summit’s three-year title run in 2019, and it’s poised to potentially start a title streak of its own this year as coach Brian Phelps said he only has to replace two outside hitters who graduated.
“We have a pretty good group back,” said Phelps. “So far we’ve done a pretty good job focusing on one game at a time, don’t worry about the whole year, just progression. That’s the focus so far,” said Phelps.
Five of Enterprise’s six all-state contributors from last year are back, led by senior middle blocker Sofie Shurtliff. Also back are Noah Moyle, Treshor Phelps, Sierra Terry and Allie Hunt.
North Summit graduated numerous key contributors from last year, but with top contributors Brynn Vernon and Taylor Otterness back it should be right in the thick of the 2A race again.
Phelps said there seems to be an above-average number of taller athletes in 2A this year, which should make things interesting as other programs like Kanab, Gunnison Valley, Waterford and Millard hope to be in the thick of the state title race.
Panguitch has won three straight 1A titles and five of the past six, and the chase for another title will certainly be more tough than in recent years.
The Bobcats only return two contributors this year, Faith Owens and Lexi Griffin, while Griffin is coming off an ACL injury and her effectiveness remains to be seen.
Panguitch’s position isn’t unique. Seven of the eight top all-staters from last year all graduated, with Milford’s Kinley Spaulding the lone player back.
“I think it’s going to be as tight as it’s been in a while. Rich I think is probably the team to beat, they have a lot back and they have a good program, always have,” said Panguitch coach Troy Norris.
A pair of Panguitch’s region foes, Milford and Piute, figure to be right in the thick of the 1A race along with Intermountain Christian, which is led by new coach Lorenzo Gasper.