The 2016 version of Monticello High School volleyball heads into the season with high hopes and expectations.
The Lady Buckaroos have made a name for themselves at the 1A volleyball tournament in the past 10 years, making the finals last year for the third time in five years and finishing second in 2015.
The Bucks last won the 1A state championship in 2011 and 2012 but have made the semi finals seven of the last 10 years and have placed first twice, second once, third three times and fifth three times in those years.
This year, long time head coach Tony Esplin expects the Bucks to be in the top four again. The Bucks start off this week on Friday at the St. George Tournament.
Even with all of the winning of the past 10 years, Esplin describes this year’s team as “young”.
The Bucks lost graduated all-staters Averi Christiansen, Molly Anderson and Ashley Ewart and outside hitters LaShay Lewis and Kari Schmidt, as well as senior-to-be Makayla Wolford, who moved with her family to Castledale.
“We have four kids back with any experience, with three, Allie Maughan, Atlanta Black, Izabell Slade, starters (and all-staters) from last year.
“Marci McDougall,” Esplin detailed, “who worked into the front line rotation,” after Ewart was lost for the season with a knee injury. All four return for their senior season.
Black averaged eight kills and three blocks per game last year to pace this unit from her middle position. Slade will move to the middle also from her outside position she played last year, so the Bucks will have to replace both outside hitters.
Junior Ashley Adair will probably fill one of those outside hitter spots with the other spot up for grabs. Maughan will enter her third year as the setter for the Bucks.
Two other juniors will factor into the Lady Bucks lineup with Abbi Nielson taking over the libero position. The libero is a defensive specialist who can enter any time on just the back row.
Erin Rogers, new to the Buckaroos, played freshman volleyball in Farmington, NM as a freshman, but sat out last year with a ruptured Achilles tendon and will be back row and do some setting.
Tristan Esplin, a sophomore, will help with the setting and the libero, particularly on JV, and fellow sophomores Journey Baird, Shaylee Bradford, and Tymber Black as potential outsides with Ashley Adair for varsity.
The Lady Bucks are the favorite for the region title this year again and have some tough non-region foes to go along with that schedule. Durango, who the Bucks took to five sets last year in Colorado, will visit the Buckaroo gym, as will Cortez,
San Juan and Grand also will give the Bucks some nice challenges during the season. Esplin says Panguitch, Piute and Milford will be forces at the state tournament, along with Duchesne, Layton Christian, ICS and Rich.
“I think we should be in the top four again,” predicts Esplin. “We have that ability with the kids to do it, barring any injuries. If the younger kids step up and fill in those gaps and do their roles, we should be right there and competitive again.”
Esplin, who enters his 25th year as the head coach of Lady Buck volleyball, explains the Buckaroo’s success, “We try to focus on fundamentals. We try to control what we can, our skills, and not worry so much about what the other team does.
“More than anything, we try to play loose, not be reserved. The times when we’ve struggled are when kids are afraid to make a mistake and stop being aggressive.
“Serving is always key. Kind of our motto we use to win games is ‘serve and serve receive.’ If we can serve decent and put a little pressure on teams, not make mistakes, we usually do well.
“And if we can pass well and can run our offense, we are hard to deal with. We’re one of the few that can run a quick offense, so that nullifies some of the big teams.
“We preach on the team that you have about a half a second to forget about the mistake that just happened. The ball is coming right at you on the very next play, and if you’re busy worrying about it, then we’re going to be out or be off.
“We try to focus on the next ball and don’t worry about what’s happened in the past. That’s why we do the cheers. You can’t make a mistake and beat your head when you have to get in a group and do a little team cheer and get back at it. It’s a routine.
“We try to get them to forget about what’s happened.
As a coach, if I see something on other teams who aren’t doing that, someone sulking or fretting I’ll say, ‘Hey, serve this area, she’s kind of out of it right now.’
“Consistency is the key. Do what you do and hope it’s better than what the others do.”
Come and follow the Lady Buckaroos do just that this 2016 season.