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Prep volleyball preview: Field chases La Cueva

Volcano Vista’s Olivia Dixson hits as La Cueva’s Rebecca Leischner, 3, and Maalese Wallace, 6, go up for a block during the state volleyball action last season. Volcano Vista is one of the contenders for the large-school division state title in 2019. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

About the only thing we know for sure about the 2019 prep volleyball season is this:

La Cueva will not have another undefeated season.

The Bears, last year’s Class 5A state champions, are one of a small handful of squads from the metro area that could hoist a blue trophy in mid-November.

And in fact, it’s not even clear La Cueva is the metro’s best team. At least, not as the season begins.

Having said that, the Bears are one of the most physical and fearsome teams in 5A, led by a pair of New Mexico State commits in 5-foot-7 senior hitter Mariana Sharp and 5-8 junior Sidney McIntosh. As explosive as those two are at net, the Bears also have a pair of 5-10 hitters in sophomore Isabella Harrison and junior Maalese Wallace.

But where the Bears have a question is the setter position, and identifying one girl to feed La Cueva’s powerful arms. Sophomore Erin Jones and junior Ashley Vigil are both doing setting as the Albuquerque Metro Championships begin bracket play on Thursday, though the hope is that one will emerge as the clear floor leader. But La Cueva coach Steve Archibeque said La Cueva, in addition to its collection of hitters, features a strong defense, outstanding ball control and the capability, led by Sharp, to author a prominent back-row attack.

“We just have to keep healthy,” Archibeque said. “We have a really good chance of being there in November.”

Cibola has everyone’s attention, what with the Cougars returning eight seniors and also coming back from two sets down to beat La Cueva in a season opener last week.

“Our mantra is ‘calm and consistent,’ ” second-year Cibola coach Christian Norton said. “My group can get a little high, but they also can get a little low. We’re working on being more even-keeled. We have to act like we’ve been there before.”

Senior middle Angelina Oliver, at 6-feet tall, is one of the more imposing net presences in the metro area. But senior setter Jade Martinez and senior right side Anna Huggins are among the other key players Cibola returns.

“If we put it all together … there’s no limit I could put on this group,” Norton said. “They’re very exciting to watch.” Megan Holland won a state championship as Sandia’s coach in 2013; she stepped away from the job for a few years, but is back to lead the Matadors.

Four starters return for Sandia, led by 6-1 senior outside hitter Cali Hobart. Hobart and the opposite-side hitter, 5-8 junior Adriana Tatum, give the Matadors one of the most potent hitting tandems outside of La Cueva’s Sharp and McIntosh.

“We definitely have a good front row,” Holland said. “… if we put it all together, hopefully we can be there in the end.”

Volcano Vista has been to the state semifinals four straight years, but hasn’t broken through to a final.

Senior hitter Olivia Dixson (5-9), who is returning from a foot injury and may play this week, coach Dawn C de Baca said, is one of the state’s best players.

But the Hawks have plenty of unfamiliar faces.

“It’s a brand new group, as far as chemistry and that kind of thing goes,” C de Baca said. “I think they’ll be able to do some good things.”

Other 5A metro squads that could emerge as threats include Cleveland, Eldorado and a young Rio Rancho squad.

From outside the metro area in 5A, Centennial, ranked No. 1 by the coaches, looks to be the strongest of the group. But both Las Cruces and Santa Fe are expected to mount challenges.

CLASSES 4A/3A: State champion Los Lunas won a 4A state title last year with an interim coach, Tanya Sanchez. She is now the full-time head coach. The Tigers, who beat Goddard in five sets in the 2018 championship match, return most of their starters from last fall, including senior middles Dani Ross and Mya Fliss, and senior setter Jackie Inman.

One of the promising newcomers for Los Lunas is 5-7 junior outside hitter Edyn Lopez.

St. Pius is the No. 1-ranked team in Class 4A. The Sartans return all their starters and they’re off to a 5-1 start, with victories over Sandia, Cleveland and Rio Rancho. Cibola handed St. Pius its only loss, and St. Pius faces huge tests next week against Hope Christian and La Cueva.

“We’re not big by any means, but we’re athletic and driven, so hopefully we can get it done this year,” Sartans coach Jordan Russell said.

Senior libero Kennedi Rey is among the top returners for St. Pius, as well as senior setter Ashley Cheshire. Rey and senior Cameron Martinez give the Sartans a fierce defensive twosome in the back row, Russell said.

Hope, a state semifinalist last season, has a new coach in Sara Branch. The Huskies, as well as Los Lunas, are scheduled to play in the Tournament of Champions in Santa Fe this weekend. Hope senior hitter Lauren Trejo is one of the most productive hitters in 4A.

Goddard and a big Albuquerque Academy team also are expected to be in the mix come November.

• After a tremendous run as Sandia Prep’s head coach, Audra Gentry stepped aside and the Sundevils, too, have a new coach in Gi Taik Hong. Sandia Prep was the state 3A runner-up in November to St. Michael’s.

Already a multi-year varsity veteran, junior libero Kirschtin Kinberger is one of the elite at her position – in any class – for Sandia Prep.

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