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Prep volleyball: Sandia faces several challengers in defense of state crown

New Mexico high school coaches seemingly have copied each other on the list of favorites for top honors in volleyball for the 2017-18 season.

When asked, the leaders of the large-school (Class 5A) teams readily rip off the names of six teams that could contend for a state championship: Centennial, La Cueva, Las Cruces, Rio Rancho, Sandia and Volcano Vista.

Why such a deep pool? Maybe because of the way the state tournament ended up last year.

Centennial came into the 6A playoffs as the top seed with only one loss. But Sandia, after knocking out No. 2 La Cueva in the semifinals, then handed the Hawks a five-set loss in the final.

“We’re still going to be competitive,” said Sandia coach Kris Borland on the chances of his team repeating. “If we can jell, it’s all whether you can make the plays at the state tournament.”

“There’s probably six or seven teams … that can win it all,” Rio Rancho coach Toby Manzanares said.

Sandia’s outside hitting tandem of Jaedyn Fuqua and Cali Hobart was broken up when Fuqua graduated. But 6-footer Hobart is a powerful returning weapon for the Matadors, and the defending champs have another major cog back in senior setter Patia Storey.

“She (Storey) is really good. She makes that team good,” Manzanares said. “She’s fun to watch.”

It’s been almost a decade since the last Rio Rancho championship back in 2009 — marking the end of a stretch when the Rams won six titles in eight years. This year’s Rio Rancho squad will be led by seniors Hayley Wondra and Brooke Barbour, respectively, at setter and outside hitter.

But, if pressed, Manzanares and others point to La Cueva as the odds-on favorite.

The Bears are paced by senior setter Brie Mortenson, who has the luxury of passing to two of the best hitters in the state: junior Mariana Sharp and sophomore Sidney McIntosh.

Although both stand at around 5-9, the La Cueva outsides pack quite a punch.

“We have a lot of returning players. A lot of power, so it should be a good year,” La Cueva coach Steve Archibeque said.

At Volcano Vista, look for junior outside hitter Olivia Dixson to lead the way. For another group of Hawks down south, Centennial has a solid returning middle hitter in junior Peyton Holst while junior Andreya Hesser is back after missing almost all of last year to injury.

Under coach Al Rosen, Centennial has been in state-championship matches in each of the last four years — winning 6A in 2016 and 5A in 2015.

“They (his players) understand it’s kind of a new team and there’s a lot of strong teams out there,” Rosen said. “When you’re the one seed, you’re kind of defending it — not trying to take it. It’s a different kind of mindset.”

In Class 4A, largely composed of last year’s 5A members after the reduction of six classifications down to five, defending champ Los Lunas has a new coach in Veronika Baric. The Class 5A second-place team from last year, St. Pius, graduated 11 players.

“We’re not as big as we’ve been in the past, so we have to rely more on ball-control,” St. Pius coach Jordan Russell said.

Sandia Prep enters the Class 3A battles as a three-time defending state champ in 4A but the Sundevils graduated their three top hitters from 2017. That might open the door for the likes of Robertson, which returns outside Jazmyne Jenkins and middle Alianza Darley.

Texico re-enters Class 2A as the reigning titlists from 3A, while Class 1A has two defending champs: Logan, winners of 2A last year, and Melrose — champion of 1A in ’17.

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