Like many of the athletes from the Delta and Cedaredge High School volleyball teams, I attended this past weekend's state championship tournament for the first time.
The spectacle at the Denver Coliseum was truly impressive. Sixty teams on five courts, each Class playing out a 12-team tournament over two days.
The bedlam and organized chaos, the screaming and the shrieking whistles, the hopes and dreams playing out on the courts in front of me...I've covered state tournaments in two different states and this one was more memorable than most.
I appreciated the emphasis on FUN. The Saturday morning Chicken Dance by the Shaggers (junior volleyball players who shag balls during matches) was great fun for everyone.
The camaraderie and respect for others shown by teams and coaches was refreshing to see.
Delta County was well-represented in the big city. For the first time maybe ever, three local schools made the tournament: Cedaredge, Delta and Paonia.
"That is unbelievable. I'm not sure if that has ever happened," Cedaredge coach Heather Dunbar said. The Bruins won regional and district championships before capping a magnificent season with a victory over Kiowa in pool play at state.
"Our area could be considered as one school for some of these 4A and 5A teams," Dunbar said. "If we were all one team, we could definitely compete at that level."
A renewed emphasis on junior volleyball is starting to pan out at the high school level, manifesting in the depth of quality teams around Delta County.
"It takes building those small programs at the younger ages that makes the difference," Dunbar said.
Delta coach Beth Nelson, who led the Panthers to their first showing at state in the very competitive Class 4A, was impressed by the quality of local competition and the three teams that represented the county at state.
"It makes me so proud to be on the Western Slope and in our county," Nelson said. "I just think it's an amazing thing and it just goes to show that we're doing things right."
As well as a strong junior program, county high school teams are being fortified by club players who can compete in the sport year-round.
"We're putting a lot of work in during the offseason," Nelson said. "That's what gets you to state, is the offseason work. I think all three programs that were here at state put in so much time and it shows. I'm just very proud to be a part of it."
Then there's Paonia. The Eagles were the veterans of the group from Delta County, going to the state tournament now four years in a row. This year's team got further than any of them, reaching the 2A semifinals before falling in a very close, competitive match against Resurrection Christian.
Eagles coach Krista Carsten has built a program that consistently dominates at every level, and she, too, noticed that Delta County teams are on the rise.
"When one team gets better, the teams around them get better," Carsten said. "It's a sign that the level of competition is going up and I think that's part of the success county teams are starting to see now."
All teams build on the same foundation -- good athletes. When it comes to volleyball, Delta County has a plethora of them.
"Kids will want to be successful," Carsten said. "I think the taste of being at the state tournament inspires them to work a little bit harder and put a little bit more time in. I think it's awesome."
And don't forget about Hotchkiss. Coach Taralee Williams is enthusiastic and eager to lead a Bulldogs team that will improve dramatically next season after offseason work and a year of consistent program building.
The state of volleyball in Delta County is good, and like the teams I covered this past weekend, I'm already planning on a return trip to the Denver Coliseum next November.