Every prep sports team loses a good group of seniors. But for Paonia, graduating seniors took a big chunk of experience and talent with it. Three of the four seniors received all-state honors, and the fourth was named Class 2A basketball player of the year. Because the graduating seniors brought so much to the team, it won't be easy to replace them.
"We lost a lot of athleticism," said senior Mckenna Palmer.
They are also playing under a new coaching staff. "It's a whole different dynamic," said senior Randi Rapke. "Not only do we have to get used to a whole new environment, this group is going to have to bond and become a team" before the end of the season.
Paonia, which came in at number four in early-season Colorado Preps rankings, has a good start.
Seniors said the team was ready to play heading into Tuesday night's season-opening match against Plateau Valley (scores weren't available at press time). They credit this summer's hard work and team participation. "Everyone was in the gym and putting in effort because they knew this year would be a lot different," said senior opposite Mckenna Johnson.
The team spent a lot of time together, said new head coach Karla Head. They hosted a summer skills camp, returning varsity players competed at a tournament at University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, and Head took two teams to the Grand Valley summer tournament.
While at Grand Valley they got a good look at Plateau Valley. "They looked solid," said Head.
Head is assistant principal at Paonia Junior-Senior High School. Before moving to Paonia she coached high school volleyball, basketball, and a season of tennis at other schools. Four year ago she coached the Paonia boys C-team.
Until now, this is the first school where she hadn't coached volleyball, said Head. When six-year head cocah Krista Carsten announced she would retire, Head jumped at the opportunity.
Carsten's teams made it to state in five consecutive years and posted a 134-25 record. "Krista has done such a phenomenal job building our program," said Head. "She's wonderful, and the girls are fundamentally solid."
Assistant coach Jillian Emmons will coach junior varsity and Jordan Trujillo will coach the C-team.
Returning varsity players also include juniors Jaquelin Mora-Verdeja at designated setter, 5-8 middle hitter Taralee Mautz, and setter Poppy Lightfoot. Junior Jade Ellenberger and sophomores Carly Horn and Jessica Deaton complete the roster.
Johnson said that while the seniors are used to playing as a team, the challenge is to mesh all the players into one team. Rapke will shift from libero to outside hitter, and Johnson will remain at opposite. Lightfoot and Horn will both set, allowing for a six-two rotation.
Palmer, a 6-foot senior who made all-state honorable mention last season at middle and outside hitter, will focus on playing outside this season. With this year's team it's better for her, she said, and where she feels she can play her strongest.
Among this year's goals is winning the league title. "I think we're shooting for that, and we're shooting to definitely go to state," said Palmer. "Every year we set that goal."
Another goal is to cement the players as a team. Because the seniors "took much of the offense with them," the team is working on offense, but will focus more on defense while they make the adjustment, said Rapke. "Yes, we want to be able to hit the ball, but we have to be able to defend everything."
The team is also looking ahead to next season. By then this year's juniors should have a solid fundamental base, said Palmer, and that will take them far. "It's not all about the hit that smashes into the floor. It's a lot about the perfect pass that goes up, the right setting off of the right foot."
Eight of Paonia's 19 matches will be played at home, beginning Sept. 8 against Soroco and Sept. 9 against Hayden. The team will host Meeker on Oct. 20, which is also the annual Pink Night fundraiser for Hope West in honor of October as Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Seniors said they like having more challenging teams like 5A Grand Junction and conference teams Meeker, Vail Mountain, Rangely and Olathe scheduled toward the end of the season. That gives them more challenging games ahead of playoff season.
"That's what prepares us for state," said Rapke.