EIGHT IS JUST ENOUGH: Large senior class lifts Sunrise Mountain volleyball

Sunrise Mountain senior Madison Harris, junior Kimber Roberts (#14), senior Kaylee Ford (#5) and Kendall Boulay (#8) celebrate a point in a Sept. 4 match against Willow Canyon at Sunrise Mountain High School in Peoria. [Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps]

Richard Smith
West Valley Preps

Coach Bob Levardo realized the potential of his eight-member Class of 2019 before those players did.

Entering his second year as Sunrise Mountain coach in 2015, Levardo could tell the incoming freshman were special.

“We noticed their potential and athletic ability during our summer camps and during tryouts. At that time we knew they were going to be a special group,” Levardo stated in an email.

In the next two weeks, these Mustangs will play their last matches together, having lead the program’s transformation from 4A qualifier, to 4A runner up and now one of the top 8 teams in 5A.

Sunrise Mountain (22-11 overall, 12-5 regular season) earned the No. 6 seed and a home first-round playoff game Tuesday against No. 11 Scottsdale Notre Dame Prep.

“Some of our main goals since we’ve moved up and played tougher teams is to take sets from teams like Sunnyslope. To be honest, we’ve been doing that, which is nice. I think we’re excited to show what we can do in the playoffs. We want to prove that this little 4A school that moved up to 5A can hang,” senior setter Payton Harmann said.

Jocelyn Teichman went straight to varsity as a freshman, and the 2015 reached the playoffs only to run into eventual state champion Scottsdale Notre Dame Prep.

Classmates Kendall Boulay, Megan Flory, Kaylee Ford, Harmann and Madison Harris joined Teichman on the 2016 varsity. The Mustangs made the second round of the 4A bracket, only to see region rival Greenway knock them out.

Suddenly as juniors, these girls were in charge. Mia Svorinic was the lone senior in the roster and she played in nine sets.

The Mustangs were improved, but overshadowed by district and region rival Cactus, who beat them twice in four sets. Something changed, however, after that second loss on Oct. 19, 2017.

Sunrise Mountain would not lose again until a heart-wrenching 26-24, 23-25, 18-25, 25-22, 13-15 loss in the state 4A title game against defending champion Tucson Salpointe Catholic.

“I think the loss to Cactus helped them get re-energized and as coaches we would talk to them about their abilities to believe in themselves and their teammates,” Levardo stated.

That belief carried into the 2017 playoffs as the Mustangs knocked out perennial power Flagstaff and shocked top seed Cave Creek Cactus Shadows in a semifinals sweep.

Then-freshman McKenzie Wise joined the junior leadership core in the push to state, slamming 16 kills against the Falcons.

“I think last year when this whole senior group was together as a junior class we had an energy. Going to the state championship, our energy and personalities clicked and we bonded a lot,” senior defensive specialist Courtney Luxton said.

Sunrise Mountain’s Jocelyn Teichman hits the ball over the net against Centennial on Oct. 16 at Centennial High School in Peoria. [Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps]
Harris, a middle blocker, was back for the playoff push and was the missing piece.

The narrow miss against Salpointe gave the loaded 2018 team motivation to win its final game in its new conference.

“We got a little taste of it and we wanted more,” Flory said.

The transition to 5A looked easy on paper, with every rotation player returning. But then one did not. Wise transferred to Northwest Christian.

While they miss Wise’s explosive attacking, the Mustangs have adjusted. Uncommon depth has helped the move up.

Eleven Mustangs have played in more than half of the team’s sets this season. And all 14 players have factored in at least 30 sets.

“I feel that this is one our best qualities and strength of this team. We have the ability to switch it up and for a coach it is great to have these options,” Levardo said.

That versatility and collective approach begins with the senior class. Levardo had the following to say about each senior:

• Grace McCarty — A versatile player who can play either pin position. She is our spark when we need to pick it up.

• Kylee Ford — A great defender and server. She brings up our team with the love she has for her teammates.

• Kendall Boulay — Smart player who knows what she wants to do with the ball. She brings a smile and joy to everyone.

• Jocelyn Teichman — She ignites our team with fiery offense. She brings out the strength and the will to win for our team

• Courtney Luxton — The hardest worker on and off the court. She brings the spirit and positivity to our team.

• Payton Harmann — Our quarterback on the court. She is our voice on and off the court.

• Madi Harris — Our captain and level headed one. She leads by example on and off the court.

• Megan Flory — Our last wall of defense. She fires the team up with digs and never say die attitude.

More than anything, however, these seniors bring their individual skills and personalities to the mix without sacrificing team goals or collective morale.

“There’s eight of us seniors and we’re all going through the same path right now, whether we’re playing volleyball in the future or not. We’re like sisters in a sense. We’re with each other every single day. And that plays out on the court. All of us are together and having fun,” Luxton said. “You see teams where none of the girls get along. That’s a way different dynamic than we have.”

As of now, Harmann, Teichman and Ford have signed to continue playing in college.

Sunrise Mountain has needed all of its depth and versatility against one of the toughest schedules in 5A. All five regular season losses came to power teams.

Top seed and defending champion Phoenix Sunnyslope knocked off the Mustangs in five and four sets. No. 2 Goodyear Millennium swept in the opener. No. 5 Phoenix Horizon squeaked by and home.

And new region rival Centennial — battling Sunrise Mountain for the No. 6 spot — split its regular season and tournament matches. The Mustangs beat the Coyotes in five sets at home, only to see Centennial narrowly sweep them Oct. 16.

“Teams are much quicker paced than they were last year. This year we’ve had to step up and play as fast as the other teams,” Harris said.

Despite the difficult road, the seniors said their battles against the best of 5A have been fun.

Levardo said these last four years have been incredibly fulfilling. He credits the Class of 2019 with bringing a winning attitude to Sunrise Mountain volleyball.

“To have the opportunity to coach such talented young ladies has been a once in lifetime experience for me,” Levardo stated.

Sunrise Mountain’s Madison Harris, right, communicates with teammate Hannah Richman against Centennial on Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2018 at Centennial High School in Peoria. [Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps]

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