Xavier Prep had to wonder before the 2010 season started what life would be like without Stephanie Preach. Over the weekend, the school’s three-time state champion volleyball team found out.
Unfortunately for the rest of the 5A-I teams, the answer is… the Gators will do just fine.
Xavier rallied to beat Sunnyslope High School for the Gold Division title in the first major tournament of the season, the Mesa Westwood Tournament of Champions. It’s the Gators’ third consecutive tournament title.
The Westwood is the class of the early-season tournaments, with 36 teams participating this year, spread across all divisions of Arizona high school volleyball.
This year’s final match was a meeting of the three- time defending 5A-I state champion and the two-time defending 4A-I state champion, with the teams splitting the first two games and Xavier coming from four points behind in the deciding game for a 23-25, 25-20, 15-13 victory.
Xavier lost Preach, the four-time All-Arizona and two-time Big Schools Player of the Year, to graduation last year. Junior Bianca Arrellano is stepping in this year to take over the job at setter, but it was junior outside hitter, Katarina Schulz, who took over again – just as she did at last year’s event.
Schulz led the Gators to a two-set win over Gilbert HS in the title game last year, racking up 10 kills to go with 22 assists from Preach. This year, Shulz led the way again without Preach, recording 12 kills; Arellano pitched in 11 more and also added 18 assists.
Sunnyslope was ahead in the third game, 9-5, when Schulz and Arellano sparked the offense with two kills apiece to help Xavier back into the lead, 13-11. Another Schulz kill, combined with a Vikings’ hitting error, wrapped up the championship once more.
One of the best teams in the state, Sunnyslope returns five key players from last year’s championship team, including outside hitter Madison Kingdon, the state’s top player who is playing her final high school season.
Kingdon showed why she is considered the best player in the state, contributing 15 kills and 17 digs in the title game, helping the Vikings run off 11 straight points in the first game of the finals.
And don’t forget setter Heidi Thompson, who was a member of both of the last two championship teams. She contributed 26 assists against Xavier.
The Gators had to defeat Hamilton HS in the semi-finals to earn the right to face off with Sunnyslope. The Vikings punched their ticket with a win over Gilbert HS.
Hamilton, the No. 3 team in The Arizona Republic rankings, is expected to be in the fight for this year’s 5A-I state title. The Huskies are returning five starters, including senior setter Jordyn Moody, outside hitter Ashli Bellinger, and 6’2″ middle hitter Payton Bock.
Gilbert, which returned its setter and top two hitters this season, was a favorite to win the Westwood. The Tigers have a long-standing rivalry with Xavier, fueled by last year’s Westwood championship game; the two schools have combined for eight of the last 10 5A-I titles.
This year, the Tigers have one of the best pairs of outside hitters in junior Macey Gardner and sophomore Penina Snuka.
Snuka and Moody both were selected to the All-Tournament Team, which also included Kingdon, Arellano, Schulz, Brittany Thomas (Hamilton HS), Jocelyn Leichner (Desert Mountain HS), Amanda Benson (Xavier), Heidi Thompson and Andi Lowrance (Sunnyslope HS), McKella Williams (Desert Vista HS), and Kacy Kiefer (Corona del Sol HS).
The Westwood TofC has been leading off the high school volleyball season for 19 years and grows in popularity each year. Last year, there were 32 teams that included many of the state’s best; this year’s field added four more teams.
There’s actually a waiting list of teams wanting to test their mettle against those in the tournament. And Sunnyslope was on that waiting list until last year.
In the two tournaments in which the Vikings have played, they have certainly proved they belong. They made it to the semi-finals in 2009 and the finals this year.
And that may be as far as they get for awhile… until Xavier has a down year.