The big teams, literally and figuratively, are back near the top of the 4A girls volleyball rankings.
Tucson Salpointe Catholic at No. 6 despite a 15-1 record seems a bit low but the top four are otherwise to be expected. Defending champion Greenway is No. 4, Flagstaff is at No. 3, Estrella Foothills is No. 2 and No. 1 Deer Valley has a vise grip on the top ranking after knocking off Greenway and Flagstaff.
Wait, Estrella Foothills at No. 2? The program tucked away in southwest Goodyear?
Believe it. The Wolves are undefeated in the regular season and believe they can go deeper into the playoffs then could their 2018 quarterfinal team.
"I think the fact that we are hanging with Greenway and Deer Valley in the rankings right now and that we're undefeated is the highlight. We beat the teams early in the season that we didn't think we were going to beat, like Seton Catholic, Cactus and Bradshaw Mountain," senior middle blocker Makayla Hurles said.
Hurles, like the Wolves' other three seniors, does not have to think far back to remember when a season like this seemed to be a pipe dream.
The program improved when Jennifer Gonzalez took over as head coach in 2015. But the Estrella Foothills had not made the playoffs since 2009 and never earned a region title until breaking through in both cases last year.
"It's taken a lot of work the last three or four years. We've probably seen better season every year. A really good group of players came in and a really good group of parents freely allowed me to do what I need to do," Gonzalez said.
Hurles said the 2017 season seeds of this emergence. The current seniors were all on varsity together, and the freshmen who are now juniors came in.
"We really started to build our team. We all started to click. Now everyone's been playing together for years," Hurles said.
Senior outside hitter Abby Rambo helped the Class of 2020 grow, Hurles said.
"She made sure we always had a good attitude. Sophomore year was definitely a learning experience. She always made sure, win or lose, to play with a smile and celebrate everything," senior libero Nadia Trinidad said.
By 2018 the Wolves were ready to compete near the top of 4A. Players were starting to understand each other's skill sets better on the court.
But Estrella Foothills did not realize its improvement until their second match, a five-set thriller against Desert Edge, a 5A playoff team in 2017.
"That was one of our first games last year. I definitely remember going into that game — because it was our first time playing them — and we were bug eyed. Hearing we were going to play Desert Edge and knowing how they play ... I think that win definitely made us realize we actually can work together," Hurles said.
From there, the Wolves lost three straight matches before winning their final 12 regular-season contests.
Estrella Foothills beat former region kingpin Youngker twice, then a third time in the first round of the 4A playoffs. That set up a second-round match at eventual state champion Greenway, and the Wolves pulled a surprise in a 25-23 first set before losing the next three.
Gonzalez said there were a lot of tears after the loss last year but she reminded her team that it won the home tournament, won region and went to the second round of state — nothing to be ashamed of.
"It made us realize we're a lot better team than we thought. The fact that we were able to take a set off the 4A champion in state really boosted our confidence. We realized, dang, we can hang with these teams that have a lot of height and a high skill level," Hurles said.
Eleven of the 14 varsity players this year are back from that team. Trindad took on a larger role as the Wolves lead libero and Hurles is more of a leader. Sophomore outside hitter Emma Barber trained extensively in the offseason.
Nayelli Mancia, as Gonzalez said, is the team's moral compass. The junior is already a two-time captain as voted by her teammates.
"The majority of them have been on varsity for three years. They want to win and go out with a bang. They have high expectations but they know what they need to do on and off the court — in the classroom and in the community. They're always being watched," Gonzalez said.
Estrella Foothills (27-3 overall, avenged its 2018 regular season losses to Prescott Valley Bradshaw Mountain, Chandler Seton Catholic and Cactus.
All three of the Wolves losses were to Flagstaff High in the early-season Coconino tournament. Right now the Eagles are ranked No. 3 while Deer Valley has the top spot.
"Watching film from my sophomore year I was like, 'Why did I make varsity?' And then I watched film from last year and though, 'Oh, were good.' Watching film this year I'm like, 'Dang,'" Trinidad said.
The Wolves do this despite having more in common with No. 5 Bradshaw Mountain than the four favorites. Estrella Foothills has only one six-foot or taller player, sophomore Sara Betts.
Hurles said to compensate for the lack of height, the team definitely tries to run faster sets and speed up the game in general.
"We're not a big team. I think we have one six-footer. So we have to be small and mighty," Gonzalez said. "You don't have to be big to play this game. You just have to have a lot of heart."
The flexibility and smaller roster allows for improved defensive coverage from multiple players. Five Wolves have at lest 100 digs.
And despite being 5-10 and 5-8. respectively, Hurles and fellow senior middle blocker Aniya Mitchell have combined for 87 blocks.
"I've had so much fun being the libero. I know we've always struggled with height, but I feel like our middles, especially Makayla and Aniya, they have mad hops," Trinidad said.
Barber leads the way with 282 kills, while Hurles chips in 185and sophomore outside hitter Alice Mancilla adds 148.
This depth and variety has allowed Estrella Foothills to grow into a legitimate 4A contender. And the seniors are able to appreciate how rare this transformation is.
"It's going to be super sad when this season is over. We have amazing coaches and amazing assistant coaches. We all click, even our two new assistant coaches. I don't have anything to complain about," Trinidad said.
Technically a large neighborhood in Goodyear and part of the Valley, Estrella Mountain Ranch is far enough away from the rest of Goodyear, let alone suburban Phoenix to have a unique relationship with its high school — closer to a small town.
And in turn the team fields an almost entirely local roster.
"We've built this program from the kids in the community. I don't recruit. These are all girls that have come through the junior high program that feeds right into our school. A lot of these girls know each other through club and want to be part of a winning program," Gonzalez said.
As the team gets better the girls are becoming neighborhood celebrities.
Trinidad said she remembers walking around Safeway after a Youngker game. She received congratulations from shoppers she doesn't know because she does not live in the residential area.
"I work at a restaurant up in Estrella, Taste of Italy, and when I'm there customers come in who I have never seen before in my life. They ask, 'Oh, are you on the volleyball team?' People know who we are and understand the legacy we're leaving," Hurles said. "It's kid of like having fans, who are following us throughout the season."