Updated: Apr 6, 2020
The year was 2005. I was 27 years old and had been coaching soccer at Coconino High School in Flagstaff. I was a volunteer assistant and just really loved being around the game and working with kids. I was playing a ton of volleyball and asked the volleyball coach at the school if she needed an assistant coach. She didn't know me, and I can imagine that she was probably both protective of her girls, and had no idea what i could offer her team. She told me that she didn't need any help at the time. She was nice about it. I was bummed, though.
Not two days later, I got a call from Adriana Lopez. Adriana had played high school volleyball with my sister and I had played against her a few times at the local athletic club. She was an incredible defender and knew a ton about the game. Adriana was the assistant coach at Sinagua High School which, of the 3 schools in town, was the newest school. Coconino High School had won back to back state championships for volleyball only a couple of years before, and from what I remembered about Sinagua volleyball, they weren't too good. When I was in high school, Sinagua played in their small gym at their school instead of their main gym. They were the team that kind of got blown out a lot. Adriana asked me if I would like to come over and work with the girls. She said they had a pretty good team that year and needed someone to hit at them that could challenge them.
What I didn't know was that Sinagua's program had been taken over by a woman by the name of Angela Vargas. She had implemented a culture within that program that had completely turned it around. I walked into the gym and she immediately sized me up. I was a young male and she, like the coach at Coconino was protective of her girls. I was lucky that Adriana knew me because I was walking into hostile territory otherwise. I will never forget the look on the girls faces when I walked in. It was a look of something on the lines of, "who is this guy and what is he doing in our gym? Can we just get to work already?"
I had never been coached at volleyball. I had never even been through any drills at this point in time. I was learning the game from Angela and Adriana. I would jump into drills and they would tell me where they wanted me to hit. I had a lot of ball control, my jump serve was good at the time, and that is pretty much what they used me for in the beginning. After a few weeks, Angela thrust me into the spotlight from the shadows and made me start running some drills. She said, and I will never forget it, "if you are going to coach, you have to earn these girls respect. Get out there and take control." I did my best, but i have to admit, I was intimidated. You see, this team was actually really good. The tallest player was 5'10" which is not very tall for an indoor volleyball team. They were all dynamic though. The setter was incredibly fast, her tempos and locations of sets were amazing which allowed our offense to be really complex. The middles were, ironically, the most athletic players on the team and could block and swing wherever we asked them to. The libero was fiery and could dig anything hit her way. I was impressed. As any coach does, I tried to figure out what their limits were. How hard could I hit at them? How much could I challenge them? I ramped it up day after day. I was having so much fun!
As the season wore on, and we won more and more games, the team's confidence seemed to be building. We played their crosstown rival multiple times during the season. That rival just happened to be my alma mater. The gym was always at full capacity for those matches and each one was epic. we came out on top of them over and over though. In 2005, Matches were only 3 sets instead of 5. We went 3 sets with them a couple of times, but seemed to always find a way to win.
One day, Sunnyslope High School came to town. I knew they were a ranked team, but for some reason, the team seemed a bit intimidated by them. It was a strange day when they came to town. For some reason the bleachers weren't working so instead of center court in our gym, we had to play them on our practice court on the side. Things just didn't quite feel right. I had never seen the team play like they played that day. They didn't seem confident. They weren't nearly as energetic. I was confused. We lost a close game, but it just didn't seem like the team I had been working with for a couple of months. There had been a lot of talk about "Sunnyslope this" and "Sunnyslope that" along the way before the game and finally when the game was over, I asked Adriana, "what the heck is all this talk about that team? I feel like we are just as good as them." She went on to tell me that Sunnyslope was the team that had knocked Sinagua out of the state tournament the year before.
Well, the season went on and the state playoffs came around. The state tournaments were all being played in the Glendale Arena (Now Gila River Arena). Our first round game there was Notre Dame Prep, but everyone on the team was already looking past that game. as they looked at the schedule, they saw that if we kept winning and Sunnyslope kept winning, we would meet them in the semifinals. We came out against Notre Dame Prep and it showed that we were looking past them. The first game was way too close for comfort but we won the match. We rolled through to the semifinal and there they were, Sunnyslope.
After having lost to them on our home floor, we traveled to Sunnyslope earlier in the season. We lost to them there too. We played them again two times at the Cactus Shadows tournament in the season and, you guessed it, we lost both times. This team had become our nemesis. As coaches, we had been secretly implementing a game plan in practices for weeks just for the moment we hoped we would get to see them in the state tournament. You see, we came in as the 3 seed in the tournament and Sunnyslope came in as the 2 seed. We figured that if we did our job, and they did theirs, there would be a showdown waiting to happen there.
The moment finally arrived. The two teams were in separate places within the arena doing their game prep. Angela gave an awesome speech telling the girls that this was their moment. She had set the tone and the atmosphere just right. As we walked into the tunnel to line up to be announced, Sunnyslope was there waiting for use. Their team was lined up down the right side of the tunnel with their coaches in the back and we lined up down the left side. As I stood at the back of the line, I could hear the girls from Sunnyslope yelling. They were saying things like, "we got this", and "let's beat them again". Then one girl yelled out, "This team can't beat us, we beat them 4 times this year already!". That was it. That was the moment. That was the moment I knew that we were going to win. That moment right there. As I looked toward the front of the line, our captain, Jessica Vargas, started to silently sway back and forth. She was up on her toes and I can absolutely imagine the look on her face when she heard that. The whole team started swaying back and forth. All completely silent as they just listened to this other team talk trash. We ran out onto the court in the middle of the arena. The school had sent a bus full of students down to cheer and there were a lot of fans in the stands. That was the last moment I would notice anyone else in the arena except for our team.
Warm ups started and our team was quiet. There was an intense focus from all of them. There was an intense focus fro the coaches. We were ALL locked in. I was hammering balls at our libero. The look on her face said it all. "Harder" she tells me. I kept hitting it at her harder and harder. She was ready. They all were. We implemented our game plan perfectly. We knew their middles couldn't keep up with ours. We were smaller, but we were more dynamic and faster. Our middles would block in the middle, and then switch and swing outside. Our outsides would come in and swing in the middle. We had them confused. We had them on the ropes. Then, toward the end of a close first set, the outside hitter from Sunnyslope went up and swung, she hit the ball out of bounds and we were awarded the point. As everyone celebrated, our captain walked over to the ref and said, "i touched it". In a close game against a team that beat us four times that year, our captain was honest. I'm pretty sure that everyone watching cringed a little bit in that moment. That tied the score at 18-18 and that was all she wrote. Everyone did their job. The libero, Jenna Hase, was flying all over the court for balls. Our setter, Casey Thomas, had crazy vision and would see the middles cheating one way or another to try to set up their block and make a great dcision as to where the ball should go. Alex Bavasi, and Jessica Vargas were stuffing balls on the right side and then transitioning all the way out to the pin to hit. Rochelle Stapley was coming into the middle and crushing balls. Katie Pavlich was locking down their outside hitters with her block. The game was a materpiece. We won! We beat the team that had knocked us out of the tournament the year before and beaten us 4 times that season! We were on to the state championship! It was absolutely epic! I sit here writing about it over 15 years later and I can still picture each of those moments vividly!
Here is an article that was written about our run to the state final.
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