Based on the pre-season rankings, this is not the year the Patriot league domination of Class 3A volleyball will end.  The league, which has won the last seven state championships through either Eaton or Valley holds down the top five spots in the first poll of the season released last week by CHSAA.
Eaton of course is the bell weather for the division as the Reds have captured the last four state championships including three straight wins over rival Valley in the state championship match.  The Reds overall have eight titles which is fifth best all-time and another crown this year ties them with Evergreen for fourth most in Colorado history.  Platte Valley, another Patriot league member, has the most titles in state history with 14 with their most recent coming in 2003.
Over the past four seasons, Eaton has won 110 of 114 matches and has not lost to a 3A team since a 2-0 early season tournament loss to Manitou Springs on September 7th, 2013.  Looking to keep that streak alive and add another banner to the Eaton gym are key returnees Chelsea Lockey and McKenzie Harris.  Lockey recorded 950 assists during the championship run last year and she enters her senior season with 2,687 career assists.  Harris was the second option to the graduated Tarynn Sieg up front last year but takes over the top role after picking up 321 kills last season.  She’s one of only four returnees statewide in the class with more than 300 kills a year ago.
Pushing Eaton for the top spot in Colorado and the Patriot league will be Valley, University, Sterling and Resurrection Christian.  Those four teams are ranked second through fifth in the first CHSAA volleyball polls of the season.
As mentioned, Valley has played in the last three state championship matches but has failed to take a set against Eaton.  The Vikings do have two state titles in the past seven years but the program starts a new era as Erin Steele takes over for Rene Aafedt as head coach.  Aafedt stepped down after the state tournament last November ending a stretch of 20 years in charge of the program.  Steele is a former player at nearby Roosevelt High School and played collegiately at Nebraska-Kearney.
The Vikings lost the talented hitting tandem of Brooke Schilling (363 kills) and Ashlynn Martinez (300) to graduation but welcome back Delaney Eckhardt and Jordan Loper.  Eckhardt was third on the Vikings with 157 kills as a freshman and Loper was fourth with 138 kills during her junior year.  Another key returnee is setter Halie Diederich with 764 assists a season ago.
Based on top players returning, University could have easily been ranked ahead of Valley.  They defeated the Vikings in conference play a year ago and welcomes back Aracely Hernandez (229 kills), Madelyn Malm (184) and Danya Schuessler (135) to the front line.  Together they hope to pick up the slack left by the graduation of Katie Potter (357) who was the top hitter in 2016.  Alexei Vierya dished out 810 assists as a sophomore and returns to lead the team this fall.
Sterling finished 21-6 last year under longtime coach Lisa Schumacher.  The Tigers beat Coal Ridge (3-2) in pool play but were then bounced by Eaton (3-1) in their next match.  Kyndall Feather is back in the Tigers lineup after leading the team in assists (531) and aces (81) last season.  She also contributed 224 kills which placed her second on the squad.  Lauryn Luft (172) is also one to watch for the Tigers.
Resurrection Christian again won 20 matches in 2016 but fell short of the state semifinals with a 3-1 loss to Colorado Springs Christian in pool play.  The biggest hole in the lineup is at setter where Saylor Webb, who recorded 1,490 assists over the last two seasons, graduated last Spring.  Kaitlyn Newbanks is the top returnee at that position but she had just six assists as a sophomore.  Morgan Watson was third on the Cougars with 185 kills as a freshman and steps into the number one option role in 2017.  Also back is Megan McDaniel, who led the club with 48 aces a year ago.
Middle Park and Colorado Springs Christian could be the best two options to break through the Patriot wall as they’re ranked sixth and seventh this year.  Of the two, Middle Park has the most talent returning as the top three hitters and top ballhandler return for a club that finished 25-2 last year.  The Panthers swept Platte Valley (3-0) in the pool round but then saw their season end with a thrilling five set loss to eventual runner-up Valley.
Bailey Martin (198 kills), Kierra Barr (170) and Harley Phillips (128) are all good options up front and feeding that trio will be Layne Niebarger.  She handed out 572 assists and served up 49 aces in 2016.
When camp opened earlier this month, the first task for Colorado Springs Christian was to find a new setter.  Cassie Davis owned that spot for the past four years and ended her career with a state best 3,715 assists.  She totaled over 1,000 assists each of the past three years and represents a large gap in the Lions lineup.  If they can find someone to handle that job, the Lions should be a state title contender as they return Christine Ajayi (team leader with 330 kills last year), Christa Vogt (176) and Jubilee Diamond (85) at the net.
The Lions can also rely on their great history as they’re the last team to win a 3A championship other than Eaton or Valley.  CSCS reeled off a state record six consecutive crowns from 2004-09.
8th ranked Faith Christian is coming off a Metro league championship but the Eagles missed the state tournament because of a loss to Coal Ridge in the regional finals.  That loss should motivate a team that returns a large share of their roster.  Six of the top seven hitters from 2016 were underclassmen as were the top four servers who combined for 190 aces.  Allure Padilla also returns at setter.  She picked up 239 assists as a freshman while sharing time with the now graduated Claire Goodwin (500 assists).
Players to watch up front for the Eagles are Ryanne Ferro (257) and Bella Keister (202) who were 1-2 in kills a year ago.
Bayfield and Pagosa Springs are ranked 9th and 10th and they should continue to battle for the top two spots in the IML again this year.  The Wolverines are 71-2 in league play since the start of the 2008 season so they’ve owned the conference standings with Pagosa Springs normally sitting in second place.  Both are coming off state tournament appearances that ended in pool play last season.
Bayfield lost Maddy Foutz to graduation.  She led the team in kills (245) and aces (55) as a senior but otherwise the Wolverines return virtually all the key components from last year’s 23-4 club.  Courtney Bayles (753 assists) is back to lead the offense while Jade Pascale (192), Kylee McCoy (176), Sydney Gabbard (116) and Ashley Mottin (99) all return up front.
Pagosa Springs lost a key leader in Megan Farrah but the tandem of Faith Ahlhardt (282 kills) and Morgan Lewis (136) still provide the Pirates an effective 1-2 punch.  Ahlhardt also led the team in aces (43) and Lewis was fourth (33).  Lewis (313 assists) also split time at setter with Teagan Stretton who ended her freshman season with 307 assists.
Outside the pre-season rankings, there are at least eight teams with thoughts of reaching the state tournament.  Machebeuf, Kent Denver and Lutheran could push Faith Christian in the Metro, Coal Ridge and Delta could battle for the WSL crown, Bennett hopes to push Middle Park in the Frontier and St Mary’s ended up second to Colorado Springs Christian in the Tri Peaks.  Platte Valley was below five hundred for the season (12-15) and finished middle of the pack in the Patriot but still reached the state tournament a year ago with a very young roster.
Machebeuf (15-9) returns Adrianna Casados who had the unusual honor of leading her team in kills (147) and assists (285) as a sophomore.  Kent Denver (15-10) gets back Chloe Richards and Sadie Harrington who combined for 279 kills last season.  They must however replace Mallory Garner (632 assists) who was lost to graduation.  Lutheran is coming off a rare season where they did not reach the state tournament but still won 16 games.  Their top six hitters from last year were all underclassmen including Tori Bjorgum (249), Payton (189), Abby Akers (143) as was their top setter Kennedy Johnson (633 assists as a freshman).
Coal Ridge (17-10) and Delta (20-7) were both state tournament teams in 2016 and while both could contend for another appearance, both have holes left through graduation.  The Titans lost three of their top five hitters so they will need to lean on Kara Morgan (127 kills), Paige Harlow (116) and Cassie Green (105).  Also gone is Dan Kotz (677 assists) who may be replaced by MacKenzie Crawford (43 assists).  For Delta, Lexi Quinn (112) is the only returnee who reached triple figures in kills last season.  Harlie Roberts, who led the team with 53 aces, could be the new setter to replace Emily Nortnik (656 assists).
St Mary’s (20-5) lost their top four hitters leaving Emily Wilcox (108 kills) as the top returner.  Bennett (21-4) has a good tandem returning up front in Olivia Bonstead (304) and Nakita Swingle (153).  Platte Valley (12-15), return a talented trio of juniors including Annika Zenk (199 kills), Faith Fetzer (161 kills) and Maddie Uyemura (657 assists).