The Paonia High School volleyball team keeps resetting the standard for excellence.
The Eagles took to the floor last week and began the season looking to equal or better their stellar campaign last year. Paonia made it into the winner's bracket at the state tournament before falling to Caliche in a five-game heartbreaker.
"I think the program as a whole has had a lot of success particularly the last three years, and I think the outcome is the expectation," head coach Krista Carsten said last Wednesday after practice.
"Getting to state is the expectation," she said. "I've got to work on my kids to get them to understand that getting to state is a big deal, to where it's just the standard, we expect to go. We celebrate those things rather than take them for granted, we realize that's a huge accomplishment being there."
Last year the Eagles posted a 26-1 record. That and three years of success for the program earned Paonia the No. 5 ranking in 2A according to the first CHSAA online poll of volleyball teams this season.
"A 26-1 season is pretty awesome, it's real hard to complain about that," Carsten said. "Reality is, we're getting some recognition from across the state because we've been at the state tournament the last three years. When you can have a team that goes back year after year, people start giving your program some credibility."
At some point the Eagles have to start looking forward at the challenges ahead and leave the success of the past behind.
Paonia is only in its second week of practice but already is focusing on getting better.
"We've got a lot of work to do, and they realize that when we start playing," Carsten said. "Some of the kids we had last year feel some frustrations because we're not at the level we're used to playing, but it will come. It's just going to take a lot of work, and they're not afraid of working hard."
The Eagles ran through a focused, disciplined practice session filled with high energy and enthusiasm. Paonia opens the season on Saturday at the Palisade "C" tournament and this group is chomping at the bit to take the floor.
"We lost three seniors that were a pretty important part of our program, and we don't have the depth that we've had in the past, but I think our potential to have the same kind of success is there," Carsten said.
Seniors Taylor Carsten, Ashley Van Vleet and Emily Clawson have returned to help Paonia get back to the top.
Juniors Felicity Audin, McKenna Hartigan, Emily Pieper and Brianna Van Vleet will play roles for the team, and Carsten said junior transfer Sophie Anderson has been impressive so far in practice.
Watching the Eagles play, one thing stood out immediately in the coach's eyes: this is one of the tallest volleyball teams Paonia has put on the floor. Athletically the Eagles are already ahead of the competition.
"This is the tallest team I've had since 1995," Carsten said.
It's a blank slate for every team at this time of year, and these Eagles have to continue the program's success in every match.
"We're in the top 10, that's great," Carsten said. "We just have to prove ourselves. We have to go out there and earn it."