After ascending to the top of the mountain last year, Kit Carson enters the 2018 season with the bullseye squarely on its back. It’s a challenge for which the Wildcats will be well prepared. Not surprisingly, they open the season at #1 in the polls.
Kit Carson was a perfect 28-0 in matches last season and did not drop a single set along the way. The Wildcats had five players record more than 100 kills in 2017 and four of them return for this season. Leading the way is Tess Hornung, who pounded a team-high 248 as a junior. Reyna Isenbart, who was third last year with 149, 20 behind her recently graduated sister, Micayla. McKenzie Smith (147) and Olivia Isenbart (119) are the other top returning hitters.
While the hitting numbers are the attention grabber, Penny Isenbart’s squad was impressive in many aspects last season. They served up 208 aces, with five returning players contributing at least 20, led by Hornung with 46 and Smith with 40. Of their 218 blocks, 95 were by Olivia Isenbart, who will be a senior this season. Kit Carson will also return four of six players who registered more than 100 digs, including Haley Johnson (374) and Hornung (335).
La Veta begins 2018 in the #2 position, behind the Wildcats. Last year, the Redskins posted a 27-1 mark, with the lone defeat coming to Fleming in the state semifinals in a sweep. Much of the optimism revolves around the return of three top players. Kaylee Corsentino, Nya Sciacca, and Desi Ortivez were either at or near the top of almost every category for La Veta in 2017.
Corsentino, one of only two seniors on the squad, tallied a team-leading 296 kills last year, giving her 883 in her stellar career. She also led the team with 299 digs, while finishing second in aces and blocks. Sciacca, a junior, was second in kills with 172, and digs (295). She led the Redskins with 95 aces. Fellow junior, Ortivez, finished in the top five of many categories, despite playing considerably fewer sets.
One key area that will have to be addressed is at setter, where Sonia Vallejos and her more than 1500 career sets is gone due to graduation. Mary Goins was a distant second on the team last year with 64 as a freshman. Vallejos recorded 488.
Fleming (#3), who fell to Kit Carson in the finals last season, must replace both of last year’s top hitters, with Alli Keisel and Bailey Chintala having moved on to play at the next level. Jenna Lengfelder was third last season with 217 kills, and she’s back for her senior campaign. While her experience attacking at the net will be important, she could prove to be an even bigger asset on defense, where the Wildcats lost four of their six leaders in digs. Lengfelder was third in that category with 385.
Kendyl Kirkwood spent much of her freshman season getting the offense rolling, registering 889 assists. With the losses up front, she could transition into more of an attacking role. She was fourth on the squad last year with 73 kills. Kirkwood will also play a key role defensively, as she will be the second leading returnee with 180 digs.
Otis rolled to a 22-5 record last year, only dropping one match to a 1A opponent prior to the state tournament. The fourth-ranked Bulldogs were upended by Kit Carson in their pool play opener. Coach Bonnie Wallin-Kuntz brings back a very experienced squad, only losing two players to graduation. However, one was their leader in blocks, Chloe Bleak, who had 46 of the Bulldogs’ 125 solo blocks.
As the Bulldogs look to build on last year’s success, they will lean heavily on a group of seniors that includes MaKenna Metzler, Ruby Halcomb, Apryl Tolson, Riley Brandon, and Sydney Reynolds. Metzler and Halcomb were the top two hitters last year, combining for 413 kills. Tolson and Brandon were fifth and sixth a year ago. Reynolds led the team with 344 assists. Added to that core will be two sophomores, Becca Bleak and Annalise Glosson, who both played major roles last season. Bleak finished third in kills and Glosson was second in assists with 272.
McClave, preseason #5, is primed to be the top challenger to Kit Carson inside the High Plains league. The Cardinals must replace Allie Nidey, who led the team in kills and blocks, while finishing third in digs. Jordan Parker, who finished second to Nidey in kills, is coming off a junior season in which she tallied 302 successful attacks. She will likely be the first option this season. Juniors Katie Bronniman and Rebecca Steerman will be in the running to become the second focal point of the offense.
Steerman led the Cards with 389 assists last season, but McClave also returns Alexus Gomez at the setter position. Gomez was second a year ago with 343 assists. Other players to keep an eye on are Kaitlyn Roesch and Shania Enciso, who both contributed in many areas last year.
Last season saw Sheri Carr play a lot of underclassmen for Genoa-Hugo/Karval and that experience has the Pirates opening this year at #6. They will look to build on an 18-9 record from a year ago, one that concluded with a state tournament appearance. The Pirates will need to replace two key seniors from last season, Heather Graham and Trinity Leach, but there are plenty of pieces with which to do that.
Ryely Smartt finished second on the team in kills and led the Pirates in blocks, despite missing a portion of the season. She’s back for her junior year and she will provide serious threat at the net, both offensively and defensively. After a very good sophomore campaign, Alia Kraxberger saw her attacking numbers dip a bit last year, but she was still a tough force on defense, registering 44 total blocks. Look for her to be a bigger part of the offense as a senior.
Two of the young players who gained valuable experience as freshmen last year were Tessa Smith and Mindi Carr. Working primarily as the libero, Carr racked up 212 digs. Smith was trusted with the setter position and she delivered 731 assists.
The theme for the preseason rankings was voters having high expectations for teams that reached the state field last year. Wiley makes it seven-for-seven, as the Panthers try to improve on last year’s 19-6 season that ended in pool play. They lost a group of seniors that included their top setter and three of their top four hitters.
Leading the charge this season, as was largely the case last year, is Faith Dellamaestra. The senior led the Panthers is kills, blocks, and aces, while also finishing second in digs and serve receive. Fellow seniors Marisa Vasquez (first in digs and serve receive) and MyKayla Krentz (second in blocks) will help provide veteran leadership on a squad that saw a number of freshmen gain experience last year.
The first team in the preseason top 10 that failed to make the state tournament last year is #8 Haxtun. The Bulldogs finished second in the 2A Lower Platte behind Yuma last season and they were eliminated in the regional round. Haxtun will continue to compete in the LPAA during the season, but having dropped to 1A in this new cycle, the Bulldogs will join the District 5 field that includes teams from the YWKC and Union Pacific.
The key returnee this year is senior Dawson Knode, who led the team in everything but assists and serve receive, and she was second in both of those stats. McKenna Andersen, Ciera Schelling, and Brooklyn Davis all have plenty of experience and should help the Bulldogs push for a trip to state. Haxtun will need to find a new setter, as four of the top six in that category a year ago are gone.
Optimism was high at Sangre de Cristo last year, but the Thunderbirds dropped three of their final five matches, including both at the state tournament, leaving them with a final record of 19-8. They could be primed to make a deeper run in 2018, as they return all of their key players from last season.
Jessica Slane paced the T-birds in kills and aces, while finishing second in assists as a junior. Jordyn Cantu finished tops in digs (347) and serve receive (444) as a freshman, and her classmate, Renae Sinclair, led in assists (450). Also back this season are Avery Palmgren, Lexis Metz, Alyssa Mortensen, Kenzie Rogers, and Kylee Christensen, all of whom made solid contributions last season.
The final member of the preseason top 10 is Flagler/Hi-Plains. A year after bowing out in the regional round, the Thunder hopes to rebound and return to Denver in November. That task was made more challenging when last year’s top attacker, Kodie Hasz, elected to not play her senior season.
That puts a lot of weight on the shoulders of players in their sophomore campaigns, including Sydnie Santala, Skyler Hawks, TerriAnne Saffer, Micaela Heger, Kendyl Saffer, and Katelyn Klann. The Thunder will have a few older players to provide leadership, with Abigail Pond and Destinee Parry back for their senior season.
Other teams to keep an eye on this season that will open just outside of the top 10 include Belleview Christian, coming off a 20-win season; North Central rivals Briggsdale and Weldon Valley, both of whom reached the state tournament last year;  and Springfield, who has made the state field each of the last four seasons.