Palo Verde’s girls volleyball team congregated in the school’s gymnasium Saturday morning for a light practice filled with laughs and jokes. And focus.
Sure, the Panthers play hard.
But they work even harder.
The Panthers completed their Mountain League schedule with a perfect record to secure the No. 1 seed in the region tournament, which begins Monday at sites across the Las Vegas Valley.
Palo Verde (27-7, 13-0) earned a double-bye and won’t play until Wednesday. The two days off are the reward for league supremacy amid a bevy of injuries and lineup changes. They don’t feature the star power of their past championship teams, relying instead on depth and versatility.
“They’re not the most intimidating looking bunch. They’re not the most stereotypical looking team,” Panthers coach Phil Clarke said. “But they play hard, they buy into playing with each other and focusing on those little things. … A lot of that little stuff for us tends to be the big stuff.”
Clarke emphasized fundamentals in building the program, and the Panthers have won 20-plus matches in seven of the last eight seasons. They reached the Class 4A state tournament and semifinals in 2013, and began this season with a strong core of returning players and legitimate state aspirations.
They won their first eight matches of the season and captured the Las Vegas Invitational tournament championship, strengthening their confidence in one another.
“When we came together and just worked hard throughout all that, I think that’s when we realized like ‘Holy crap, this could be really good,’” Palo Verde senior captain Mia Sadler said.
The Panthers continued to breeze through non-conference play, but lost junior hitter Carli Tanner to a back injury in the beginning of the league schedule. She led the team in kills last season, and Clarke was forced to adjust.
His team didn’t miss a beat.
Freshman hitter Kaila Yang has emerged as one of the top underclassmen in the valley and has fortified Palo Verde’s offense. The Panthers closed the regular season with nine three-set sweeps in their last 10 matches.
They’re three wins away from a region title.
“Keeping each other accountable really helped us a lot,” junior captain Arien Fafard said. “We’ve been through a lot this whole season. It would just be a huge accomplishment to get (to state).”