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.
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Teams to watch
Bishop Gorman: The Gaels didn’t lose a set in any of their final 14 matches and won their second Class 4A state title in three years.
Palo Verde: The only team from Nevada to defeat Bishop Gorman, the Panthers overcame injuries to win 30 games.
Coronado: The perennial power will have to reload with a young squad after reaching the state semifinals.
Faith Lutheran: Lost four seniors from a 26-win state tournament team.
Desert Oasis: Returns most of its impact players from a 30-win team.
Shadow Ridge: 2017 4A state champion hopes to return to prominence after falling to .500 last season.
Boulder City: The 3A state champion returns two of the top players in the valley in Kamry Bailey and Ava Wright.
The Meadows: The 2A state champion will need to replace four seniors off last year’s team.
Pahranagat Valley: Won its 20th Class 1A state title, a state record.
Players to watch
Kamry Bailey, Boulder City: The junior was the Class 3A Southern Region MVP and had 350 kills while hitting at a .434 clip, added 101 aces and 198 digs in leading the Eagles to the state championship.
Arien Fafard, Palo Verde: The Class 4A Mountain League Player of the Year had 172 kills on a .528 percentage, 39 aces, 234 digs and 720 assists in leading the Panthers to the 4A state tournament.
Tommi Stockham, Bishop Gorman: The 4A Desert League Player of the Year had 378 kills and hit .549, with 240 digs and 61 aces to help the Gaels to the state title.
Natasha Obradovic, Cimarron-Memorial: The All-Southern Nevada pick as a sophomore had 381 kills on a .422 hitting percentage and added 51 aces and 261 digs.
Cassandra Smits Van-Oyen, Coronado: The setter finished with 818 assists, 66 aces and 204 digs to earn All-Southern Nevada honors.
Ava Wright, Boulder City: She had 1,084 assists, 139 aces and 203 digs and was an All-Sunset League choice for the state champions.