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New coach is a fresh start for the Hilltoppers

When Los Alamos High School volleyball coach Diana Stokes resigned after the Tournament of Champions in the middle of September, the Hilltoppers were stumbling along at 3-7 and had two matches to go before district play began.

Enter veteran club coach Joe Palmer, who quickly charted a new course for the team.

“I just think the ladies, having someone new and going in a different direction – not different in a better way, but different in a fresh set of eyes – was almost like starting new again,” he said. “They were craving some structure and a different, a slightly different, outlook.”

Until losing in straight sets to District 2-4A front-runner Pojoaque Valley – ranked fourth in the state in the NMOTSC coaches’ poll – on Tuesday, the new-look Hilltoppers had reeled off five straight wins, jumping to sixth in the poll.

“I think it kind of was a fresh start, we can start over,” junior middle hitter Natalie Gallegos said of the coaching change coinciding with the start of district play. “We didn’t want to be that team that just fell apart. We really wanted to push for it.”

The turnaround happened so quickly in part because the team caught a bit of a break with the schedule in that it faced Cleveland – typically a powerhouse, but down a bit this season – in their first game under Palmer.

“I got to watch them play a lot,” he said. “So I’d been kind of scouting for that one. I had watched them play in Metro and I knew who their two hitters were. I knew if we played really good defense, we’d have a really good chance.”

With the 3-1 victory over the Storm, the coaching staff and players developed a fast rapport.

“It was surprisingly a quick click,” Palmer said. “The young ladies are a joy to coach. There’s a tremendous amount of talent there. We set some short-term goals and long-term goals.”

It felt like a whole team, said senior libero Kyla Sandoval.

“It was a complete turnaround,” she said. “Coach got introduced and we practiced with the JV the first day and the next practice was just the varsity. Between those two, it was a complete flip, a like a switch was turned on. The next game, we went out there and gave it our all, and really showed.”

One of the things Palmer did was encourage open communication between him and the players, as well as among the players themselves.

“More at the beginning of the season, we had more trouble coming together as a team,” said junior setter Elise Olivas. “It was hard because some of us were moving positions and figuring out what we like to do. It was hard to do that without communication and we weren’t communicating well. More toward now, we started figuring out what we wanted to do and we starting getting along, putting our differences aside and figuring out what we had to do to play better.”

Despite the disappointing loss to the Elkettes, Los Alamos has high hopes for the remainder of the season.

“We really have the highest respect for each other and we know what we’re capable of, Olivas said. We’ve shown that with the past five games that we’ve won. We’re working on what’s good for all of us, not just what’s good for each individual. We’ll keep striving for the rest of the season.”

The big difference was an attitude change because the team knew how good it could it could be, Sandoval said.

“I knew we had so much potential, I thought we could go all the way to state and I really believed we could win state, and I knew that from the very beginning,” she said.

“There were a of different things. One main reason was the girls’ attitude toward each other. When the team got down by a couple of points, the girls couldn’t pull themselves out of it. The whole dynamic changed and made people realize what we need to do be successful.”

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