Defensive stalwarts lead the way for Coal Ridge vball
Defense might not be the most glamorous part of volleyball, but it certainly does help win championships. Just ask the Coal Ridge Titans girls volleyball team how important its defense has been throughout the last few years.
You’ll likely find that it’s the strongest part about the team, highlighted by senior libero Emily Wright and senior defensive specialist/outside hitter Santana Martinez.
“They’ve given a new look of defense for this program,” Coal Ridge Head Coach Aimee Gerber said. “The glamour part of volleyball is the big kills and the big blocks. I think for our team, they’ve made defense essential, important and fun to watch. We wanted to change gears with our thinking this year with defense first and then the offense will come, and those two were key to that and made it happen, which caused the other girls to want to play defense.”
The duo has lined up next to each other for the last three years, providing the Titans with impressive court coverage on defense, which has led to three straight state regional playoff appearances, two 3A Western Slope League championships in three years and a possible third straight state tournament appearance after this weekend’s 3A regional tournament in New Castle where the No. 13 Titans take on No. 13 Middle Park and No. 25 Manitou Springs Friday night at 4 p.m. and 7 p.m.
“What makes them so good defensively together is the way they read each other,” Gerber said. “You’ll rarely see them get in each other’s way defensively. Santana’s job is to cover short-court tips and blocks, while Emily is in charge of the deep stuff, like being the main serve-receive passer. Santana is very quiet, but the girls have a ton of respect for her because she’s consistent and super competitive, while Emily has a little bit more of the spunk and can get the girls really fired up. They’ve sort of taken over this team.”
Just how good is the duo defensively? Heading into Friday’s tournament, Martinez and Wright sit Nos. 16 and 17 in the state of Colorado in 3A in digs with 344 and 336 digs on the season, which was also good enough to top the 3A Western Slope League by a considerable margin as well.
While middle hitters like Paige Harlow and Taylor Wiescamp, as well as outside hitters like Cassie Greene and Alexis Wiescamp, get the offensive attention for the Titans, one could argue Coal Ridge wouldn’t be nearly as dominant this season without a terrific defensive presence, led by Martinez and Wright. The two work off each other well, especially without the crucial role of verbal communication.
“When I’m next to Santana, we rarely talk, but we’re so comfortable next to each other on the court,” Wright said. “We’ve played next to each other for so long that we just know what the other person is going to be able to get to or what area of the court they feel comfortable covering. It’s just something that’s developed over time with us, and it’s really remarkable and really unique. We rely on each other to get by during each set.”
Despite losing some serious skill from last season’s team, the Titans actually got better this season by relying on their defense, taking pressure off of a young group of offensive players. That’s where Martinez and Wright came into the picture, taking over defensively and in the serving department, where Martinez has come up big, leading the 3A WSL in serving aces with 69.
Aside from the defensive work Martinez has put in this fall, the senior has also had to slide up to outside hitter, helping replace the loss to injury of junior Kara Morgan early in the season. Being able to slide back and forth from offense to defense has showcased the serious position flexibility the senior has, which led to Gerber calling her one of the most consistent players the veteran coach has ever had at the high school level.
“I knew that I needed to step up and fill a role as a senior,” Martinez said. “Kara was going to be such a big part of our team this year, so when she went down we knew her production had to be replaced. I’m just happy I was able to play the part this year for my teammates.”
Play her part she certainly did, but her real contribution came on defense this year, much like Wright. Playing together defensively for three years in the Titans’ program clearly helped the duo develop serious chemistry, but it wasn’t easy at first, especially with the two having to change positions during their sophomore years. Martinez was an outside hitter before Gerber pushed her to the back line, while Wright was thrust into the libero roll — a position she’d never played in her life. There were a few bumps in the road during that 2015 season, but since then the Titans have watched the two seniors grow into the top defenders they are now.
“We knew we had to help each other defensively back in our sophomore season,” Martinez said. “A lot of that was verbal communication and learning the positions as we went. Now, we’re so comfortable playing with each other and know what the other is going to do on a certain ball that we don’t really need to verbally communicate. That’s really cool to be able to share that with Emily.”
The senior duo will have two final home matches Friday night at Coal Ridge High School with a chance to reach the 3A state tournament at the Denver Coliseum Nov. 10-11 for a third straight year under Gerber’s direction on the line.