Coal Ridge seniors poised to keep volleyball program in upper echelon of 3A | PostIndependent.com

Coal Ridge seniors poised to keep volleyball program in upper echelon of 3A

Coal Ridge volleyball seniors (from left to right): Cheyanne Williams, Santana Martinez, Cassie Greene, Paige Harlow, Jessica Feese and Emily Wright.

For at least the last four seasons at Coal Ridge High School, the girls volleyball team has been one of the top programs in the valley, as well as the state, in all of 3A.

In those four years, strong senior classes have come and gone under head coach Aimee Gerber, including last fall's terrific class of Kaitlyn Harlow, Dana Kotz and Nicole Mooney, so this fall should be no exception for the Titans.

Although the program loses 56 percent of its kills, 57 percent of its aces, 77 percent of its blocks and 86 percent of its assists from one year ago, there's plenty of talent waiting in the wings.

Fortunately for Gerber, the 2018 senior class has six seniors on the roster for the fall, highlighted by standouts Santana Martinez and Emily Wright. But what sets this class apart from previous senior classes is the amount of experience and depth, as Paige Harlow looks to help fill the void at middle hitter from the departure of her sister, Kaitlyn, while Cassie Greene, Cheyanne Williams and Jessica Feese bring valuable varsity experience on the outside as hitters, giving Gerber and her staff some talented secondary pieces to deploy throughout a tough season that lies ahead.

Despite having so much experience returning, both in the starting lineup and off the bench for Gerber, nothing is guaranteed this fall for the Titans, who have made the state tournament four years in a row, won four straight regional championships and three 3A Western Slope League championships in that four-year span; the program has yet to win a match at the state tournament.

With this senior group, that should change.

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Martinez and Wright are three-year starters for a program that is looking to replace two three-year starters in Kotz and Mooney. The duo has been on the floor in big spots and has helped the Titans come out on top in some big situations, but that was in a role more suited for secondary role players. This fall, that will change for the two senior starters.

"It's kind of a good feeling to be counted on a bit more, but it's also a bit stressful," Martinez said. "We have big shoes that we have to fill, and it's a huge responsibility, but it's something that I'm ready to take on. It's a lot of pressure to maintain the standard we've put out there, but this group is ready for it."

"We have to be strong for the underclassmen," Wright added. "If we show that we're nervous or that the pressure of certain moments is getting to us, then that resonates down to the underclassmen. If we're nervous, then it's not good for our team. Controlling my nerves is something I've worked on this offseason, but I kind of like the pressure of being a leader of this team."

Although six seniors stand ready to take charge of the program during the 2017 season, this is a young Coal Ridge team with a handful of players taking on their first real responsibilities on the varsity level, highlighted by junior setter Kenzie Crawford and freshman middle hitter Taylor Wiescamp. With a number of young players stepping into bigger roles, the seniors with experience will be looked to even more on a team with extremely high expectations under Gerber.

"The number of young players is good for us," Martinez said. "It's good that they'll get high-level experience this year so as they move up each year, they'll be ready to step up with more experience and keep this program going. But it's going to be a little bit hard this season with the young players because we're going to have to get them up to speed quickly and get them used to how things go around here."

Communication seems to be the key for now with the young Titans, considering the quarterback of the offensive attack was Kotz, who has moved on to Colorado Mesa University. What made the Titans so tough the last few years — outside of the sheer talent on hand — was the ability to play together, which is something the group has done since middle school. That slightly changes this year as Crawford steps in for Kotz as the setter. However, Crawford gained valuable experience last season down the stretch, often playing as the second setter on the court next to Kotz, giving the Titans a dynamic attack.

"I think once we work out the little kinks of playing with each other, we'll be just fine," Wright said. "We just have to communicate clearly with each other on and off the court. I think once we do that and learn how each other plays, we can be very good, maybe even better than last year."

So far, so good for the Titans, who've dropped just one set while jumping out to a 2-0 start to the season with wins over Ridgeway and Paonia. Tonight, the Titans will get a chance to show their home fans again just how good they can be, coming off of a four-set win over Paonia at home on Tuesday.

But while the good start to the regular season is nice, nothing will be as satisfying to this senior group as winning a match at the 3A state tournament at the Denver Coliseum in the middle of November. Last fall, the Titans came up short by just two points to Sterling in a five-set thriller.

"That's the ultimate goal for this group," Wright said. "We've been trying to do that for the last few years and have come up painfully short at times. So if we're able to get back to the state tournament and win a match there, it would mean so much to this senior class, because we've worked so hard and put in so much time to make ourselves the best we can be.

"That would mean we all stepped up in a big way. What happened against Sterling has motivated me to try and be as perfect as I can in all areas of my game. And I think that's happened with the other seniors, as well. That result has definitely driven us and motivated us this summer."

The Titans take the next step in that journey back towards another state tournament berth tonight at home against Grand Junction Central, starting at 6 p.m.

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