With five of their top six hitters and top setter all returning, 2018 should be another banner year for Lewis Palmer.  The Rangers have won the last two and four of the last five Class 4A state championships and are the overwhelming favorite to land another crown this November.  They enter the season as the pre-season number one team in the CHSAA rankings grabbing nine of 10 first place votes.
Taylor Buckley (207 kills) and Kessandra Krutsinger (180) were 1-2 in hitting last year and both return for their senior seasons.  Also returning are seniors Riley Putnicki (165), Trinity Jackson (158) and Adelaide Feek (119) as the Rangers once again will have multiple choices at the net.
Feeding those five will be McKenna Sciacca.  The handed out 845 assists last year and could surpass that total this year.  Her backup, Gianna Bartolo (66 assists) is also back for the Rangers.
Over the last two years, Lewis Palmer is a perfect 58-0 and has not lost a match since the 2015 state finals.  They topped Valor Christian in three sets for the title last fall.  First up for the Rangers is a match with Coronado on August 28th and they again host their annual invitational on September 8th.  Coach Wade Baxter’s club also meets five-time defending 3A state champion Eaton in a highly anticipated match on September 22nd.
Coming up in October are attractive conference matchups against Air Academy (2nd), Palmer Ridge (16th) and Cheyenne Mountain (18th).
Several teams will again try to chase down the Rangers and the leading candidate appears to be #2 Holy Family.  The Tigers reached the state championship match two years ago and almost made it there again last year but came up short in a five-set semifinal loss to Valor Christian.
Ali Travis led the Tigers with 384 kills last year and the senior now needs just 18 more to reach 1,000 for her standout career.  She’s recorded at least 260 kills in each of her high school seasons.
Depth behind Travis will be need developing as the next three hitters, who combined for over 600 kills last year, all graduated.  Riley Lynch had 45 kills last year and was fifth for the Tigers and she likely will get more chances.
The Tigers will also work in a new setter as Sara Berghoff (847 assists) graduated.  Peyton Frank, with 48 assists last year, may be the top candidate.  She also recorded a team best 588 diggs last season.
#3 Palmer Ridge is coming off the best season in school history as the Terrors won 24 matches and reached the state tournament for the first time.  The roster for this year is much different as several members of the talented freshman class from last season are no longer with the team.  Moving on were Mac Russ, Riley Simpson and Grace McIntosh.
But there is much talent remaining including senior Summer Reflogal.  She placed third with 212 kills last season and was also second with 36 aces.  Eliana Della Rosa is back for her sophomore season after positing a team-leading 254 diggs.
New coach Trevor Sullivan looks to build on success from last season.  They get some early tests on the schedule including a date with defending 5A state champion Castle View on August 29th and Pueblo West on September 4th.  The opener is with Classical Academy on the 23rd.
Returning state semifinalist Niwot is ranked 4th to open the 2018 season.  The Cougars finished 22-6 following a 4-set loss to Lewis Palmer.  Included on the run was another Northern Conference championship (13-1) as they edged Longmont by one game.  A similar race is expected this season.
A tough loss for Niwot was the graduation of multi-talented Mackenzie Fidelak.  She led the team with 275 kills but also finished second in assists with 231.  Despite all that work, the now Stanford freshman had just 23 ball-handling errors.
Otherwise, the Cougars return almost the same roster as last season.  Audrey Richard (200 kills), Emma Falk (182), Emma Shiers (145) and Zoe Gonzales (140) give the Cougars plenty of firepower up front and the Cougars also return Kate Hirsh (395) and Madison Schroeder (261) who combined for 656 assists.
With Valor Christian bumping to Class 5A this season, the Jeffco race should be a battle between Evergreen and D’Evelyn.  The 5th ranked Cougars finished third in the race last year two games back of #6 D’Evelyn.  They will meet twice in conference place and outcomes of those two should determine the Jeffco crown.
Evergreen returns their top four hitters including Claudia Dillon (351 kills) and Hayley Dillon (132).  Molly Solis (127) and Gabby Clark (97) are also back.  Katie Hays returns after leading the Cougars with 458 assists while Skylar Gale chipped in a team-best 262 diggs.
While Evergreen lost to Mullen in regionals and did not make the state tournament, D’Evelyn got to Denver and went 0-2 in pool play.  They lost to Holy Family (3-0) and Ponderosa (3-2) but the experience should carry over to this season.
The Jags return just one hitter with more than 100 kills in 2017 but that returnee is Sophia Hoffman who led the way with 21.  Theyla Mirowski was fourth with 83 and should get more hitting chances in 2018.
Lost to graduation was top setter Natalie Haggard (642 assists) and since the rest of the team managed just 34, there will be inexperience at that spot to open the season.
#7 Air Academy tied for third with Cheyenne Mountain and Discovery Canyon in the rugged Pikes Peak conference last year but with their top five hitters and top setter back in the lineup, a higher finish and deeper post-season run is a definite possibility.  They generated 13 wins last year and did not advance to the state tournament.
Hayley Payne led the team with 320 assists last year and depth is available as Natalia Lambos (105) also returns.  Up front, juniors Lyla Hollis (124 kills), Charleston Tidwell (112) and Sydney Barnes (98) all return along with senior Paige Petty (100).
No team, including top ranked Lewis Palmer, has been more dominant in league action than #8 Pueblo West.  Coach Casey King is unbeaten in the South Central conference overall as the Cyclones have not dropped a league match since 2010.  He’s directed the Cyclones to state tournament appearances four of the last five years but the program has not advanced from pool play in that stretch.
Both streaks could be in danger this year as Pueblo West is almost starting over with their varsity roster.  Reagan Emery led West with 220 kills last year but the next ten hitters all graduated.  The only other returnee with a kill last year is Maya Webb (1).
Top setter Brilane Manchego (817 assists) also graduated as did the next three in that category.  Webb, with 11, is the top returnee there.  Emery was seventh with 42 diggs last year and all the players ahead of her are gone through graduation as well.
#9 Longmont did not reach the state tournament last year as they lost to Roosevelt (3-1) in the regional finals.  But as mentioned, they placed second behind Niwot in the Northern conference and hope to push the Cougars again this year.  The first meeting between the rivals is set for September 25th at Longmont with Niwot hosting the rematch on October 18th.
Rachel Kusbel (398) graduated after leading the team in kills last season, but otherwise the roster is intact.  Carline Demosthenes (140) and Autumn Drees (132) should pick up some of the production lost to Kusbel and Payton Jonason is coming off a strong freshman season where she collected 131 kills.
On the back line, Ellen Goodwin (354 diggs) and Annika Wetterstrom (215) were 1-2 in that category last year and Wetterstrom also led the Trojans with 810 assists.
#10 Thomas Jefferson is again favored to land the 4A title inside the City league and push Denver East for the overall championship.  The Spartans went 17-7 but were bounced in regionals by Cheyenne Mountain (3-1) last year.
Gracey Jarecke is the probably the most important returnee.  She led TJ with 521 assists and 289 diggs and was second with 62 aces.
At the net, the Spartans get back their top three hitters in Bella Williams (172 kills), Siale Sandoval (157) and Elle Maggio (109).
Discovery Canyon and Cheyenne Mountain are two other members of the Pikes Peak conference that could spend time the rankings this year.  They combined for just 29 wins against strong schedules last year but both qualified for the state tournament.  Similar seasons could be in store for both this year as they must face Lewis Palmer, Palmer Ridge and Air Academy in league action.
The Thunder welcome back hitters Ashten Prechtel (249 kills), Leah Lester (214) and Taylor Wanderscheid (102).  Hannah Pethtel (845) also returns after leading the team in assists as does Kate Bouschell, who led the team with 401 diggs as a freshman.
A new era is set for Cheyenne Mountain as David Barkley has stepped down as coach.  The Indians won six state championships under his guidance including five straight from 2008-12.  Their last state crown was earned just three years ago.
Gail Sanchez takes over the reins and returns Jackie Marensen (190 kills), Amanda Sabbagh (127) and Emma Delich (85) up front.  Also back is top setter Kaelin Coe (714 assists).
Ponderosa made the state tournament again despite finishing with a sub-500 record (12-15).  The Mustangs compete in the very deep 5A Continental conference and will always be a factor in the 4A playoffs because of that competition.  They beat D’Evelyn (3-2) and lost to Holy Family (3-1) in pool play last season.
Taylor Wiebold (178 kills) and Jordyn Miller (159) are the top returning hitters.  Grace Germaine picked up 74 assists last year and likely takes over setting duties this Fall.
Erie and Roosevelt hope to challenge Holy Family inside the Tri Valley.  They league also got a bit deeper as Fort Morgan moves over after winning the Colorado 7 crown last year.  Roosevelt went 0-2 at the state tournament but got there by upsetting Longmont in the regional finals.  Dorie Morre (214) and Logan DeRock (175) were 1-2 in kills last year and both return for the Riders.  Also back is top setter Jordan Jennings and her 713 assists.
For Erie, they lost to Palmer Ridge in the regional finals but still captured 16 victories.  Jessica Amend and Megan Casillas both return after combing for 909 assists last year.  Sydney Crites and Sophie Crawford put down a combined 396 kills and both are expected back in the lineup as well.
NOTES:  The 4A regional tournament format remains the same this year as league champions and the top 36 teams in the RPI advance to the post-season and winners of the 12 tournaments qualify for state.  The state event though turns into a double-elimination bracket until the semifinals as CHSAA is moving away from the pool system.  The state tournament is again set for the Denver Coliseum but has been stretched to a three-day event.