Tryouts for high school volleyball programs were held this week as Valencia County’s three high schools start putting their rosters together.
After varying degrees of success in 2021, coaches and players at Belen, Valencia and Los Lunas high schools seem genuinely optimistic about this season.
Belen High School
Coaches for the Belen High School volleyball team believe that a successful summer of open gym and tournaments will lift the Eagles to greater heights this season.
Second year coach Victoria Spragg said, “There were some really good things that happened” over the summer, particularly at a tournament in Moriarty where the Eagles won five games.
“We showed a lot of progress from last year,” Spragg said.
The Eagles finished the 2021 season with a 2-16 overall record, and Spragg believes there was an adjustment period between the new coaching staff and players that slowed the team’s progress.
“That’s what we ran into last year, getting everybody to buy in and get on board,” Spragg said.
But the coach believes the Eagles started to turn the corner at the end of last season, something senior outside hitter Marina Montano agrees with.
“We have a better team dynamic. We are closer knit this year,” Montano said. “I think we are going to do better. I think we are going to reach our potential this season.”
The departure of three seniors means there are several holes to fill in the middle and on the outside. Spragg believes they can do that with a solid group of returners and former junior varsity players, who she calls “a great asset.” The coach hopes there are enough players who come out this season to form a “C” team, something they were unable to do last year.
Spragg said the coaching staff and players will lay out team goals as the games near.
“We want to grow on the individual skills, which will get us to our team goals,” Spragg said, adding, “Obviously, everybody wants to win, but how are we going to get there, what are we going to do to get to that point?”
Junior setter Samantha Wells looks at the defense and the back row as a strength for the Eagles.
“We connected a lot during the summer season,” Wells said. “I’m so excited. I love volleyball and I love being with these people.”
The Eagles open the season at Santa Fe Capital on Aug. 25. Belen plays in District 5, 4A against Valencia, Highland, St. Pius X and Grants.
Valencia High School
After a runner-up finish in district play a year ago and a successful summer schedule, Valencia High School volleyball coach Melissa Marberry-Profit is optimistic about the upcoming season.
Marberry-Profit, the District Co-Coach of the Year, said the Jaguars will be counting on “a group of solid, young players. They have bought in to what we are doing and are building a foundation for this program.”
Marberry-Profit said because of COVID-19 restrictions, this was the first summer since she took over three years ago that the Jaguars were able to travel to tournaments and camps.
“We were able to compete against some really good 4A and 5A teams,” the coach said.
The voluntary summer schedule included a tournament at UTEP and a camp at the University of New Mexico, which allowed the underclassmen to gain some much needed experience.
Bailey O’Conner, one of two returning seniors, said the inexperienced players made noticeable improvement.
“I think the younger girls are going to step up because they did in summer ball,” O’Conner said.
Fellow senior Nevaeh Goar feels the same way.
“I think we’ll be really good if we work together,” Goar said.
Marberry-Profit said the Jaguars run a defense that is not used very often in the high school ranks.
“It is called a man-to-man defense, similar to what Jon (head coach Newman-Gonchar) uses at the University of New Mexico,” Marberry-Profit said. “We mirror where the hits are coming from, learning different angles.”
It is new for many of the players so they are adapting and adjusting.
Even with perennial power St. Pius X, Marberry-Profit believes the Jaguars will be competitive in the district, especially if the players “continue to learn and grow through the season.”
In addition to St. Pius X, District 5, 4A features Belen, Grants and Highland. First serve for Valencia is Aug. 23 at Alamogordo.
Los Lunas High School
The “sky is the limit” is how Los Lunas High School volleyball coach Tanya Sanchez describes her expectations for the Tigers this season.
After all, the Tigers lost just one starter from last years’ team, which had a 17-6 record, won a district championship and earned a trip to the state playoffs.
“We have pretty much our entire team back,” Sanchez said, adding “our girls have a lot of heart.”
Sanchez, in her fifth year as head coach, is straight forward about the teams’ goals.
“Win district. Go to state, and possibly win state.”
The Tigers may be motivated by a gut-wrenching first round setback in the state playoffs last season, a five set loss to Rio Rancho.
Los Lunas does not have a tall frontline compared to some of the other top teams in 5A, so Sanchez says they rely on tempo, speed and a great defense. Middle blocker Kaysin Robinson, who is 5-feet, 11-inches tall and the lone returning senior, will be key at the net after leading the Tigers with 60 blocks last season. She doesn’t mind being the Tigers’ “elder statesman.”
“I just love them all,” Robinson said. “They work hard. They are smart players. We have played well together for a long time.”
Offensively, much of the load will be on junior outside hitter Riley Luther, who was among the state leaders with 281 kills. Luther describes the Tigers as having a very good volleyball I.Q.
“We all want to hit hard and straight down,” Luther said. “The placement is a huge part. We all know our jobs. We all know what to do.”
“Savvy” is how coach Sanchez describes sophomore setter Mia Mendoza, who has been on the varsity since eighth grade.
“She knows the game and reads the court well, and is a very hard worker,” Sanchez said.
Los Lunas is also looking for strong seasons from sophomore libero Lauren Shiplet, who has been with the team since she was an eighth-grader; versatile junior Aleigha Romero, and sophomore outside hitter Mellody Chavez, who has been attacking the ball extremely well, according to coach Sanchez.
The Tigers are in district 5,5A with Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Rio Grande, Santa Fe Capital and Manzano. Los Lunas opens the season Aug. 23 at Gadsden.
Mike Powers spent more than 40 years as a television news and sports anchor, mostly in the Albuquerque market. He has won numerous awards including New Mexico Sportscaster of the Year. He covers a wide range of sports, including the Valencia County prep scene.