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Scrappy Palo Verde boys volleyball team stands tall

Palo Verde’s boys volleyball team doesn’t have any Division I prospects on its 13-player roster. Nor do the Panthers have anyone taller than 6 feet, or someone physically intimidating at the net.

That hasn’t stopped them from shattering expectations in a crowded Southwest League, arguably the toughest in Southern Nevada.

“It’s not a typical group for us at Palo Verde,” ninth-year coach Phil Clarke said. “We’re typically bigger and a little more powerful. This group — we’re athletic — but size is not our strength. We’re a little scrappier, and we take more pride in our defense than in teams past.”

Palo Verde, which lost five of last year’s starters to graduation, including all-region players Andrew Weston and Brigham Clawson, hasn’t showed any signs of a dropoff.

The Panthers (27-9, 5-1) are tied for first place with Legacy, the defending state champions, with two league games remaining and are one of several teams in play to make a deep playoff run.

“They definitely have an opportunity to do some good things,” Clarke said. “But it’s going to be tough. In our region alone, there are a handful of teams that can beat the other on any given night. They understand the possibility, but also understand how hard it’s going to be. It’s exciting to be in that position. It’s definitely wide open.”

Michael Simister, a 5-11 outside hitter, is the only returning starter from last year’s team, which lost to Shadow Ridge 3-1 in the Sunset Region semifinals. Now as the go-to leader, Simister hopes to bring the school its first state championship since 2009.

“This team can be better than last year’s when we play at our best,” said Simister, who leads the team in kills. “Our best is when we have energy and we’re just all excited and happy.”

He will get plenty of help from senior teammate Cole Willson, who has gone from being a back-row player and defensive specialist last season to setter. Willson replaced Weston, who was selected first-team All-Sunset Region last year.

“Cole has really stepped up,” Clarke said. “This is his first year setting for us. And he’s one of those guys that is always asking to get better. ‘What do I need to work on? What do you think about this?’ He keeps us balanced.”

Clarke said the key to the season has been forcing opponents to play Palo Verde’s style.

“Everyone wants to get that booming kill or that big-time stuff block,” he said. “And that’s just not our game. It’s just not. We’ll get some here and there, but for the most part, we’re going to have to make teams play that extra ball and frustrate them. We’re going to have to make teams earn it.”

Playing in the same league with Shadow Ridge, another state semifinalist, and Legacy hasn’t hurt.

“I wouldn’t mind some easy matches here and there,” Clarke said jokingly. “But if we want to go far, I think it definitely helps having to play good competition. You can’t just come in and think you’re going to win this one easy. …

“As tough as it is, that’s how the regionals are going to be. Nothing is easy. It’s a battle every night. If you walk into the gym and think you’re going to roll over someone, or win, you’re going to be in for a fight. In the long run, it’s only helped.”

The Panthers hope that tough league play has prepared them for their ultimate goal.

“The goal for this season has been state all along,” Willson said. “We fell short last season with a really good team. It’s going to take a lot of work. But when we play with a lot of energy and a lot of tempo, that’s when we’re at our best.

“It’s not just a one-man team. We need everybody.”

Contact reporter Ashton Ferguson at aferguson@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0430. Follow him on Twitter: @af_ferguson.

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