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Bishop Gorman’s grip on Class 4A volleyball might be loosening

Updated August 21, 2019 - 8:34 pm

Carli Tanner could only stand on the sideline and watch as her Palo Verde volleyball team, like so many others, was swept out of the playoffs last season by eventual Class 4A state champion Bishop Gorman.

Earlier in the season, the outside hitter had helped the Panthers defeat the Gaels in a three-set tournament match and could only wonder if the result might have been different the second time around had she been playing.

Tanner, who missed most of last season with stress fractures in her back, and Palo Verde hope they get another chance this year.

“It totally lights a fire. We want nothing more than to win our region and go as far as we can,” Tanner said. “We’ve got a great team this season, and that just gives us more encouragement to do better than we did last year. That’s the goal in the end is to go all the way.”

That’s the goal for plenty of teams, and they know they have to go through Gorman to attain it.

The Gaels have won two of the past three state championships, and that 2-1 loss to Palo Verde was the only blemish on their resume last year against a team from Nevada. Palo Verde coach Phil Clarke was quick to point out Gorman was without its star outside hitter, Tommi Stockham, but he said it was a big boost to his team’s confidence.

Gorman proved it was better than everybody in the state by a large margin. It didn’t drop a set in any of its final 14 matches and has Stockham back for her senior season. But the Gaels lost Anjelina Starck, a Penn State commit who moved to Colorado, giving other schools hope.

“I feel like there’s a lot more competitive balance going into this year. It’s hard to go away from Gorman because they did win last year and they bring back a good core,” Clarke said. “To me, this year more than others, there seem to be more teams up there.”

Palo Verde has an experienced group from a 30-9 squad that is led by Tanner and setter Arien Fafard, a UNLV commit.

“We don’t have the tallest team, but our chemistry is what keeps us together,” Fafard said. “We’re best friends, and we keep each other accountable and challenge each other on the court.”

Faith Lutheran was a state tournament team last season. Shadow Ridge took a step back last season after winning the 2017 state title but hopes for more this season. Durango won 27 matches and has a winning tradition.

Coronado isn’t that far removed from being the state’s dominant program, when it won three straight state championships from 2013 to 2015. For coach Matt Johnson, at least in terms of what his team now knows about that time, it’s “like folklore and stories of the past.”

“But it does mean a lot when you walk in here and see all the banners in the gym, and we have to open up the back gym because we don’t have enough room, that means a lot,” Johnson said.

Coronado isn’t completely building from scratch with leaders such as Cassandra Smits-Oyen and Dallas Balanay-Flores, but it’s a young group that will need to come together quickly to match or exceed its success from last year, when it reached the state semifinals.

“It’s really fun because you can tell some of (the young players) are nervous and just want to do good,” Balanay-Flores said. “As a senior, I’m trying to encourage them. When they make a mistake, I tell them it’s OK, you’ve got the next one. I can tell they’re nervous, but it’s a fun experience for me and them.”

The top teams in the valley will compete in the 28-team Las Vegas Invitational this weekend. Most of the top teams also will compete in the Durango Fall Classic, which attracts some of the nation’s top teams.

More preps: Follow at reviewjournal.com/nevadapreps and @NevadaPreps on Twitter.

Contact Jason Orts at jorts@reviewjournal.com. Follow on Twitter @SportsWithOrts.

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