Northeast Valley Region boasts three state volleyball contenders

Notre Dame Prep, Chaparral and Arcadia all made it to the 5A state playoffs last year and now are looking for even bigger goals for the 2017 season. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

High school volleyball is back, and if 2016 was any indicator of how competitive the Northeast Valley Region is going to be in 2017, then the future is bright.

The Northeast Valley Region is comprised of Arcadia, Chaparral, North Canyon and Paradise Valley high schools as well as Scottsdale-based Notre Dame Preparatory.

Last year, NDP, Chaparral and Arcadia made the playoffs as the Nos. 6, 8 and 9 seeds, respectively. Each team finished with an overall record above 10 wins.

This potentially sets up another shootout in 2017 as each looks to improve on their fortunes from a year ago.

NDP Head Volleyball Coach Sara Fox said having a competitive region is beneficial to all teams looking to make a playoff push.

“There’s no time to rest on our laurels,” she said in an Aug. 22 interview. “We get good, competitive seasons the whole year, which is nice and gets us more ready for playoffs than other sections.”

Arcadia Head Volleyball Coach Jackie Bunker said strength of schedule plays a role in postseason seed determination because of the AIA’s power ranking system.

“When you go play a good team like Chaparral or Notre Dame (Prep), even if you’re not as successful in the outcome you want, the fact that you are playing a good team helps you in power point,” Coach Bunker said in an Aug. 23 interview.

Along with standings in the playoffs, a tough region can yield close and competitive volleyball matches which can be fun to some, including Chaparral Head Volleyball Coach Holly Tiffany, she says.

“I like that we’re in a strong (region),” she said in an Aug. 24 interview. “It makes things exciting and it keeps you on your toes. Having a blowout is not as fun as it might seem, so it’s always nice to have good competition and it actually prepares you for state.”

Each of the team’s regular season kicks off Tuesday, Aug. 29 as each team sets its sights on returning to the postseason and maintaining a competitive region.

A Notre Dame Prep volleyball player smacks the ball over the net while a pair of teammates attempt to block at an Aug. 22 practice. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

Notre Dame Prep

In 2016, Notre Dame Prep was the team to beat in the Northeast Valley Region and 2017 may be no different.

The Saints return all but two of its 2016 team, including many top contributors, to a team that won the region but suffered a second-round loss to Sunnyslope High School in the 2016 playoffs.

Coach Fox said returning so many veterans has led to the team’s biggest strength: chemistry.

“They’ve played together for a while and we didn’t lose a lot of kids from last year,” she said. “They’re just excited to set up the season. I think we have a lot of good senior leadership and just good chemistry.”

Complacency is not an issue for the Saints as Coach Fox said avenging their second-round loss is at the forefront of the team’s mind.

“We felt like we left something on the table last year,” she said. “If anything, (the team) is chomping at the bit to get back in the season.”

Coach Fox will look to seniors Sayler Butters, Sophie Sydenham and Nicole Shuhandler to lead the charge. All three made key impacts on last year’s team.

In 2016, Butters, as a libero, led the team in digs while outside hitter and setter Sydenham recorded the most serving aces and the second-most digs last year, according to maxpreps.com.

Both Sydenham and Shuhandler recorded more than 250 kills each and will likely anchor the team’s attack. Shuhandler also returns as the team’s 2016 leading blocker.

“We’re above average everywhere but we have a really good middle and a pretty good setter that’s going to help us,” she said. “By far, our libero is probably one of our biggest strengths compared to the other teams we’re going to see.”

Lexi Johnson, the team’s leading hitter, chose not to return to the team as a senior, Coach Fox confirmed in an Aug. 24 email. Johnson had a team-high 532 kills last season. Coach Fox did not specify the reason for Johnson’s departure.

NDP opens the season with Queen Creek High School Tuesday, Aug. 29. The Saints return to the court Thursday, Aug. 31 to host Shadow Ridge High School.

A Chaparral volleyball player tips the ball over the net during an Aug. 24 scrimmage against Horizon High School. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

Chaparral

Chaparral volleyball has been in flux over the past few years.

First-year Coach Tiffany is the Firebirds’ third head coach in three years. She inherits a program that made it to the second round of last year’s playoffs and finished a game behind NDP in the region standings.

For 2017, however, Coach Tiffany has her eyes set on the semifinals, one round further than where the Firebirds finished last year after a loss to Centennial High School.

“I think this team can do it,” she said. “I think they’ve been coachable. I think they’ve been responsive and I think they’re buying into the system. That’s going to help us because we’re young and we’re going to rely on them playing smart. They’ve shown they can do that.”

Chaparral will rely on a wealth of youth to reach at least the semifinals this year.

Coach Tiffany said the roster features Kylee Davis and Ryann Kemp as the two lone seniors. Coach Tiffany said she will look to both as leaders for the team.

The Firebirds also return outside hitter Amber Stivrins, the team’s 2016 leading hitter, and setter Kate Van Houten.

Defensively, Stivrins posted the third-most digs last year while Van Houten tallied 184 digs.

Coach Tiffany said she will also rely on sophomores to step up into the varsity spotlight.

“They’re going through this big transition of taking on bigger roles,” she said. “I’m really looking at the sophomores to come into their own, find their voice and really step up and not play like sophomores but really fill some big shoes.”

As a whole, Coach Tiffany said she thinks the combination of the team’s pin hitters, along with solid defense from the liberos, are the team’s biggest strength.

“Amber and Kylee are undeniable when they are on,” she said.

While the 2017 season just got underway, Coach Tiffany said she wants to stay at Chaparral for the long haul to build a competitive culture around the program.

“It’s been really important to earn (the team’s) trust and make them feel like this is home and family and that I’m going to be here long term and more permanent for them,” she said. “I think that’s hard for them but I feel like we’re making the transition pretty smoothly and pretty nicely.”

Chaparral hosts Verrado High School on Tuesday, Aug. 29, will return to action Wednesday, Aug. 30 against Arcadia.

An Arcadia volleyball player reaches for the ball to attempt a kill during an Aug. 23 practice. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

Arcadia

In Coach Bunker’s first year as head coach, Arcadia returned to the playoffs after three-year hiatus, but lost to Chaparral in the first round to end their 2016 season.

For 2017, Coach Bunker said she wants to build on that momentum.

“The goal for our program this year is to go one step further at least and then see where we can push ourselves from there,” she said.

In order to reach that goal, Coach Bunker said the Titans need to play as a team.

“I don’t feel like we have a super top-heavy team,” she said. “I feel like everyone has a way to make us better and the way we’re going to beat some of these really good teams who have some really strong individual players is to out-team them.”

To help get the Titans to the team she envisioned, Coach Bunker will turn to Jade Smith, Lexi Sweeney and Rylie Satran to lead the attack.

Arcadia loses its top attacker in Jasmin Smith but returns both Satran and Jade Smith, who both tallied 160 and 127 kills, respectively, in 2016.

However, Coach Bunker said Satran will make the transition from outside hitter to libero, replacing former four-year starter Katy Tolson. Satran contributed the third-most digs last season.

Sweeney will also make the shift from middle blocker to pin hitter.

Coach Bunker said she expects the roles of Haley Westoff and Elle Overs to increase for 2017.

With all those focus on offense, Coach Bunker said she believes her team’s defense will be its strength.

“I feel like we have a better defensive intensity this year just because we’ve been putting so much work in the offseason,” she said. “When you commit time to something in your off time, it all of a sudden becomes more important to you.”

Throughout the offseason, Coach Bunker said her team has put in a lot of work and made a lot sacrifices to prepare for this season.

In Coach Bunker’s eyes, she said this gives her team the potential to reach its goal of building on the 2016 season’s momentum.

“We have a variety of weapons this year which I don’t think people will be expecting because we graduated so many high impact players last year,” she said. “I don’t think people will be expecting us to be as dynamic as we are.”

Arcadia opens the season with Ironwood High School Tuesday, Aug. 29, and hosts Chaparral Wednesday, Aug. 30.

News Services Reporter Josh Martinez can be contacted at jmartinez@newszap.com or at 623-445-2738

You are encouraged to leave relevant comments but engaging in personal attacks, threats, online bullying or commercial spam will not be allowed. All comments should remain within the bounds of fair play and civility. (You can disagree with others courteously, without being disagreeable.) Feel free to express yourself but keep an open mind toward finding value in what others say. To report abuse or spam, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box.