Teams from the Patriot and Metro conferences made up the Final Four at the 3A state tournament last year and those two leagues again appear to be the strongest.  Two matchups on tap this week involve head-to-head battles of top teams from the two conferences and those results could give fans an early indication of which league has the most depth.  Both contests take place on Thursday as #2 Lutheran meets #5 Valley and #4 Faith Christian battles #8 Resurrection Christian.
Lutheran is ranked higher to start the season and reached the state semifinals last year while Valley was ousted in pool play but the Vikings scored a four-set win in their 2017 battle.  The top two hitters in that win for Valley, Delaney Eckhardt (19) and Madison Agripino (9), both return to the Vikings this year.  But they will be receiving passes from a new setter as the talented Hallie Diederich graduated last fall.  That job could be turned over to Heather Meining this season.
For the Lights, they won 23 of 27 matches the rest of the season after falling to Valley in the opening week.  Payton Brgoch (281) and Abby Akers (243) led the Lions in kills last season and both are back to lead the team at the net this year.  They combined for 26 kills, including 18 from Brgoch, in last year’s loss to the Vikings.  Another key returnee is se setter Kennedey Johnson who dished 26 assists in the 2017 meeting.
Thursday’s contest is the season opener for both clubs.
It’s the same scenario for Faith Christian as the Eagles will open the season against Resurrection Christian Thursday night.  But the Cougars will have a contest on their resume as they battle defending 2A state champion Lyons on Tuesday night.  The Lions are 0-1 after falling to Frontier Academy last week in their first court appearance since landing the state crown.
Resurrection Christian has a new coach as Ashley Ahlman takes over for Caleb Howard who directed the program to a pair of 2A state championships during his tenure.  Ahlman has a good crew returning including top hitters Morgan Watson (298 kills) and Kaitlyn Newbanks (210) along with top setter Bryce Leineman (660 assists).  Those three will see considerable court time all season as will Megan McDaniel who topped the team with 279 diggs last season.
Faith Christian won 22 matches last season before ending their run in the state semifinals.  Ally Randall is a top returnee for the Eagles as she led the club with 247 kills a season ago.  Also back is Sophia Keister with 148 kills which was third best.  Keister will also see time at setter where she recorded 365 assists while sharing time with Allure Padilla (528).  She also returns to the Eagles lineup.
With matches against Colorado Springs Christian and Windsor this week, #3 University also gets in two difficult tests.  The first hurdle was cleared Tuesday night as they knocked off Colorado Springs Christian on the road in three sets (25-18, 25-19, 25-23).  The win pushed the Bulldogs to 3-0 on the season as they entered the week fresh off wins over Buena Vista and Lamar last Saturday.  Seniors Abby Schaefer (27) and Madelyn Malm (26) combined for 53 kills in the two wins while freshman Logan Conlin chipped in 14 and sophomore Kylie Williams 10.
Four players also recorded at least 25 diggs over the six sets with Conlin’s 32 topping the list.  Senior Alexsei Vierya was again strong on the back line with 83 assists and 17 diggs.
CSCS evened their early season mark to 1-1 with the loss.  They had opened with a hard-fought three set win over Machebeuf last week.  In that win, Jubilee Diamond led the offense with 14 kills but she was held to just seven against University.  Abby Miller topped the Lions hitting charts on Tuesday with 10 kills.  She had seven in the first victory.  Kiersten Brock has had a solid start to the season with a combined 66 assists.
Windsor will compete in a 4A league but will move into the 5A ranks for the post-season.  Their date with University is the second of two strong opponents as they also face 5A ranked Fort Collins on Tuesday.  The Wizards won 16 matches a year ago but fell short of the state tournament with a loss to Discovery Canyon in regionals.  They return a good contingent of hitters including Rylee Griemann (238), Ally Kennis (205), Hollie Hoffman (128) and Gabrielle Hertzke (115).  Setter Ellie Garrett (623 assists) also returns.
It should be an intense match when #6 Coal Ridge visits Middle Park on Thursday.  It serves a rematch of a regional final won by Middle Park in three sets last November.  That loss left the Titans at home for the state tournament despite their sparkling 21-4 record and league championship.
Middle Park received 14 kills from Bailey Martin and 10 from Keira Barr in the win but both have graduated leaving the main hitting duties to Morgan Shaw and Sammy Phillips.  They combined for seven kills in the regional final.  The Panthers also graduated their top setter, defender and server from the win so they will feature many new faces in the lineup for the rematch.
Coal Ridge meantime returns Taylor Wiescamp and Kenzie Crawford for their run at a state tournament.  Wiescamp powered down six kills as a freshman against Middle Park last year while Crawford dished out 21 assists.
The match is the season opener for both programs and it serves as the starting point for a difficult early season stretch.  Coal Ridge takes part in the Glenwood Springs tournament on Friday and Saturday while Middle Park has tough matches with Platte Valley (Sept 4th) and Thomas Jefferson (8th) in the near future.
Five-time defending state champion Eaton was with league rival University in Buena Vista on Saturday and also collected wins over the Demons and Lamar.  Mackenzie Harris notched 22 kills and senior classmate Quinci Johnson added 19.  The Reds are off until September 11th when they meet Faith Christian.
#7 Platte Valley gets on the court for the first time in 2018 when they host Highland on Thursday.  They will serve as a good tune-up for tests with Middle Park and Weld Central next week and the Lewis Palmer tournament on the 8th.  The Broncos finished just 14-13 last year but caught some momentum in the post-season to earn a state tournament trip.  They went 1-1 there falling to Eaton 3-0 and beating Lamar 3-1
Lamar stayed in the rankings at #9 despite the losses to Eaton and University on Saturday.  The Savages are under new leadership this year as former Dave Tecklenburg is back in charge and pulling double duty as district superintendent.  Statistics for the two matches in Buena Vista are not available but Brecken Payne earned 15 kills in a season opening win over Florence.  Next up the Savages meet Ellicott on Thursday and Manitou Springs Friday in two early season Tri Peaks battles.
#10 Centauri split two opening week matches in the San Luis Valley.  They came up short against Alamosa (3-0) but responded with a three-set sweep of Sargent two days later.  The Falcons are off until September 6th when they visit 2A Hoehne.  They then take part in the rugged Lewis Palmer tournament on September 8th.