The road to the 2013 state championship match was rough enough for Palo Verde’s girls volleyball team, but this year’s route promises to be a whole lot tougher.
The Panthers have spent the past nine months wondering how they let the state title get away last season, and they’re finally ready to face a future that will present more challenges than ever.
Several key players — including McCall Phillips and first-team All Sunset Region setter Stephanie Herman — were lost to graduation in the spring, and an offseason league realignment placed Palo Verde in the Southwest League with perennial powerhouse Bishop Gorman.
Considering the lessons learned along the way, first-year coach Phil Clarke and his team think they are ready to tackle those obstacles.
“It was rough last year to get so close and come up just short,” said Clarke, who was an assistant coach when the Panthers stormed to a two-set lead before succumbing to a dramatic rally by Coronado in the championship match. “But that kind of set the standard for us. We want to get back, and our goals aren’t any different.”
Clarke’s squad lacks height, and that’s always a concern in volleyball. But despite that shortcoming, the coach thinks his team’s defense and relentless style of play will be enough to produce some key wins.
“We’ve just got to get everyone to buy into the idea that size is not our strength,” said Clarke, who served eight seasons as the team’s assistant coach under Greg Siqueiros before taking over this year. “We’re a scrappy team, and we’ll have to do it defensively by making opponents play that extra point.”
Leading the way will be senior co-captains Kendall Cheval and Faryn Duncan. Both are four-year starters, and neither is deterred by the fact that a number of less experienced players will spend significant time on the floor this season.
“If we work hard, we can get through anybody,” said Cheval, the team’s top outside hitter. “Losing state last year didn’t shoot us down. It just fired us up to want to work harder.”
Duncan agreed and expressed her certainty that the team’s coaching change will not be an issue.
“I loved (Siqueiros),” said Duncan, who will handle libero duties this season. “But he and coach Clarke worked together, and coach Clarke is still awesome.”
Clarke said he has made an effort to maintain the status quo.
“This figures to be an easy transition,” he said. “We had the same kind of mentality and similar styles anyway.”
But Clarke had no control over his team’s offseason switch to the Southwest League. His squad will now see its nemesis Gorman twice in the regular season.
“It’ll be different having them in our league,” Clarke said. “And there are still a lot of other teams we’ll have to beat.”
Duncan said she looks forward to the intensification of the Palo-Gorman rivalry.
“It doesn’t matter what sport, you’ve got to have that rivalry,” said Duncan, whose team reached the championship match last year by defeating the Gaels. “For us, it’s the rivalry between Palo Verde and Bishop Gorman.”
The bottom line, Duncan said, is that the Panthers finally got over the hump last season with a key postseason win over their top rival. The Gaels also lost some personnel after last season, so she sees no reason to be discouraged.