Willow Canyon volleyball seniors bond to turn program around

Richard Smith
West Valley Preps

The best season of Willow Canyon volleyball in a decade is a bit more than half a decade in the making.

Seven seniors have led the Wildcats to an 19-8 record after Tuesday night’s win at Goldwater.

Most of the seniors started playing together in seventh and eighth grade. That only strengthened the bond for a team ranked No. 13 in 5A and set to make the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

“We’ve been working together on our skills for our entire lives, basically, and this is our year to show what we can do,” senior outside hitter Abby Cullotta said.

When they got to the school in western Surprise, the program had bottomed out, posting a 3-17 record in 2014. The current senior class was freshmen in 2015 and none played on an 8-15 varsity team.

The next year, four current seniors moved up to varsity as sophomores — Cullotta, sisters Cassidy and Aryah McCoy and Karysa Rackley. At 7-15, the Wildcats remained stuck in a rut.

“We are very much aware of how much our program grew from when we were freshmen. We got to see every single person develop their skill even more. It’s the best season our program has had in some time,” said Cassidy McCoy, the team’s setter.

Before the 2017 season, Matthew Overfelt took over as coach. Playing a busier tournament schedule, Willow Canyon improved to 19-23 and current senior Kaylee Kriwer joined her four classmates in the rotation.

Overfelt ended his first season confident this group could lead a revival.

“I knew that last year’s junior class had played together for a long time and matured together. I was really looking forward to the chemistry we had as a team. We had that working in our favor when we stepped on the court and I think we saw that bear fruit,” Overfelt said.

Rackley said she entered this season expecting to make the playoffs. In the offseason, she noticed a different level of determination team-wide to achieve that goal.

This mentality trickled down from the senior core to the youngest player, sophomore setter Kylie Ybarra.

“I even noticed during the summer she was working on her footwork. She continues to pursue and does not give up,” Rackley said.The four third-year varsity players are foundation pieces. Aryah McCoy handles libero while her sister is the primary setter. Cullotta (190 kills) and Rackley (152 kills) pace the attack.

Juniors Allison Geis (middle blocker) and Madison Danielson (outside hitter) stepped into large roles for the first time. And a fifth senior, Kriwer, is a new force after a position change.

“Primarly, she’s a basketball player but she moved from middle blocker out to the right side. I think that position match alone made quite a difference. But she worked really hard to get into great physical condition and got the volleyball touches she needed to make that transition successful,” Overfelt said.

The Wildcats shook off early losses to Gilbert and Sunrise Mountain and got to where they are in the rankings by dominating the teams they should beat.

Progress is slower against top teams, but Willow Canyon appears less intimidated, taking a set off No. 6 Sunrise Mountain and No. 1 Phoenix Sunnyslope.

“We took a focus, even in the summertime, of controlling what we could control. That’s a difference from last year. When we approach those big games, we’re not focused on those big hitters warming up across the net from us. We’re focused on making sure our warm up is solid,” Overfelt said.

The coach said his seniors do an excellent job of giving their best and allowing results to follow.

“Results don’t define us. We focus on the positives so each and every day we write down the positives and something we can improve on,” Rackley said.

Overfelt said he is seeing an uptick in the Wildcats’ freshman and JV teams as this attitude begins to permeate the program. He credits the five veterans, plus fellow seniors Lahayla Curiel and Mollie Noble.

“They look to these seniors as great examples and they really are. They’re great people, not just great players. Those younger players can look at them and say they conducted themselves well and played well on the court. That’s a formula for success that I can follow,” Overfelt said.

Willow Canyon is pretty much locked into a match in the Oct. 25 5A play-in game. What seed they receive and which team they play likely hinges on the Wildcats two matchups with No. 10 Verrado — tonight in Buckeye and the Oct. 23 regular season finale in Surprise.

Wherever they land, this is a new frontier for the Wildcats. And no one is enjoying it more than the seniors who had legitimate reason to wonder if the program would sniff the postseason in their careers.

“We have a bond because we love the game and love each other. The energy is crazy. It’s awesome,” Cullotta said.

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