Skyhawks volleyball wants 1 for road: After near miss in 2018, 13 seniors and retiring coach renew title drive

Deer Valley's Ben Nguyen bumps the ball against Millennium on April 3, 2019 at Deer Valley High School in Glendale. [Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps]

Richard Smith
West Valley Preps

As one of the original high level boys volleyball program in Arizona, Deer Valley is positioned for success well into the next decade.

Still this spring — this month specifically — feels like the end of an era for the Skyhawks. Thirteen of the 14 players on the roster are seniors.

And co-coach Kim Ulrich-Suss, who started the program in 2002, is retiring at the end of this season. She finishes alongside another strong senior class who are, in the Deer Valley tradition, volleyball players first and foremost.

“Nothing makes me happier. I love this sport and it’s the kind of sport that once a guy starts playing it, and is an athlete, he falls in love with it. It’s super fast and everybody is important. No one guy can be a hero,” Ulrich-Suss said.

Deer Valley finished its regular season with an April 30 win against Desert Edge and the Skyhawks wrapped up a top eight seed in 5A, nailing down a bye and first round home game.

What that translates to this season is anybody’s guess. Last spring, Deer Valley reached the semifinals as the top seed and was joined by the No. 5, 6 and 7 seeds.

This season, practically every team in the final 16 can win it, or is good enough to knock off a team that could win it.

“There are 12 teams that could win the state title — guaranteed. We’re one of them. But whatever. It’s good for men’s volleyball. There’s a lot of depth and competition in the state,” Ulrich-Suss said. “We’ve taken a look at having some adversity that we never had last year. That’s been important to us. That makes us stronger.”

In this case, adversity is regular season defeats against the No. 5 ranked teams in 6A (Boulder Creek) and 5A (Millennium). Throw in a tournament loss in a showdown with No. 3 ranked Marana Mountain View and that is about it. Deer Valley lost another game in that tournament to Sunrise Mountain but paid the Mustangs back in a March 27 sweep.

It only sounds difficult in comparison to 2018, when the Skyhawks were 16-1 during the season, losing only to 6A runner up O’Connor.

“Last year we did really well. We had a couple of good seniors, but the vast majority of junior carried the program. They all played club. And I wish it wasn’t like that but it is in today’s world. That club experience gives players so many more touches. And our kids are one of the few high school teams that play together in club,” Ulrich-Suss said.

Those juniors, now seniors, built for two years to that point.

Middle blocker Nathan Schrade said most of the group has known each other since middle school, when they played against each other.

“I think we’ve known since our freshman year because we all got really close really fast. We had a great freshman season. And everything has been looking better since,” senior libero Flamur Gashi said.

The majority of this team has played three years together on the varsity. They started to show their abilities during a 14-4 season in 2017, where Deer Valley reached the quarterfinals with seven sophomores.

“We knew from our sophomore year. All the seniors told us we were going to be a special group. It’s been nice to see us all come together and click,” Schrade said.

Everything clicked until the semifinals, when No. 5 American Leadership Academy-Queen Creek stunned the Skyhawks in four sets.

“It was quite a ride last year. We had a great team and great teammates. We went on a great run, and the way last season ended is a motivating factor for us this year,” Schrade said.

On Saturday, the Skyhawks stare straight at their path. No. 7 Deer Valley will play host to No. 10 ALA at 4 p.m.

The imposing Patriots were problematic that night. But this Deer Valley group is used to finding its way around taller opponents. Schrade is 6-4, and fellow seniors Matt Beard and Nathan Chapparo are 6-3 (just barely).

Every other Skyhawk is 6-1 or shorter. Ulrich-Suss said the Skyhawks Class of 2019 is full of versatile, competitive athletes who practice hard.

“We don’t have a whole lot of height and when you don’t have a lot of height you have to work together. We have a bunch of really good athletes. Nate Schrade wanted to go to college and play opposite, but he’s one of the best — if not the best — middles in the state. We moved him back to middle and that’s been nice,” Ulrich-Suss said. “Jack Puentes has taken over the setter role and has done a really good job there. He is always willing to work hard and take extra reps. Year in and year out, they know what they’re jobs are and understand their roles. And they take pride in Deer Valley as a whole.”

In addition to Puentes and Schrade, Ulrich-Suss said five other senior rotation players bring crucial skills to the mix.

They are:

• Flamur Gashi – Willing to sacrifice anything for the good of the team.
• Nate Chapparo – Huge outside hitter and explosive leaper. Played on the national team this summer.
• Ben Nguyen – One of the best servers in the state. The smartest kid and can help the team win in so many different ways.
• Matt Beard – Probably the most improved player on the team.
• Benji Valenzuela – Moved into a role as the right side defensive specialist. Improved greatly thanks to his time as a sand volleyball player.

“The stereotype for men’s volleyball has been to bang the flat balls down. And just have big guys. For our team it’s been really fun learning the strategy and how it works its way into the game. From my perspective it’s been kind of out of my comfort zone because we face teams with bigger guys,” Schrade said.

Chapparo and Nguyen in particular are spark plugs despite not fitting the big outside hitter mold Schrade described.

They pace the team in kills, Chapparo with 185 and Nguyen with 168. Plus Nguyen adds another weapon with his jump serve. His 59 aces rank fifth in the state.

“I came in here freshman year as a setter. It was a totally different experience. Seeing the other side of the ball and seeing that not everything is going to be perfect, you have to understand every situation,” Chapparo said.

This class will be the final one to benefit from Deer Valley’s to coach setup. Eric Palmer has served as co-coach with Ulrich-Suss for seven years.

The seniors said Palmer and Ulrich-Suss counterbalance each other expertly. He tends to be more technical and analytical while she, also a practicing sports psychologist, is a master at striking the right chord emotionally.

“I think it has benefited us because they have two different perspectives and they have their own role. Coach Suss takes more on meditating and focus and stuff like that, and Palmer is more strict. I think those two really help us,” Gashi said.

Deer Valley’s Matthew Beard hits the ball over the net against Millennium on April 3, 2019 at Deer Valley High School in Glendale. [Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps]

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