The Desert Vista boys volleyball team when the AIA granted Evan Johnson an extra year of eligibility after missing a full year while battling cancer.
[David Jolkovski/AFN]

The Desert Vista High School boys volleyball team may have a new coach, but it hasn’t lost its stride on the court.

Clay Webb is running the program, replacing Ryan Tolman, who went to Perry High.

The annual trip to La Jolla, California, the Brophy Invitational and fifth-year senior Evan Johnson are still very much part of the Thunder’s program as the team prepares for the second half of the season.

And, as far as Webb is concerned, the team will retain its status as one of the best in Arizona.

“Desert Vista has been a high-profile program for many years,” Webb said. “It’s something we plan on continuing. Things have gone well so far, and I like the depth we are creating. It’s important in keeping the program where it belongs.”

The Thunder entered this week 12-7 overall and 6-3 in power-point matches after finishing fifth at the Brophy Invite.

The transition has gone well with Webb, who was Mountain Pointe High School’s boys volleyball coach two years ago and has coached club at Aspire, where many of the Thunder players are members.

“A lot of the players starting are new, so it has gone pretty good,” senior Dane Cunningham said, noting the players “didn’t have a lot” of history with Tolman, “so we have a good connection with” their new coach.

Much of that connection developed over spring break, when the team headed to California for the BCI Tournament at La Jolla High.

The Thunder finished third at a difficult tournament and offered an opportunity to get out of normal routine and practice in order to bond.

“California was amazing for us,” Webb said. “We came back a different team and not just because we finished third with our only loss coming against the team eventually won the whole thing. It was a huge trip for us. We had a chance to really bond and grow as a team.”

The Thunder entered this week with nine more matches in the regular season to close the gap between them and the top teams of 2017 – including Perry, Brophy, Boulder Creek and Chandler – before the postseason arrives.

They made some big strides, considering players Mason Harberston and Landon Fuller began the year in new positions. Moreover, the team had to wait for Johnson and Mountain Pointe-transfer Peter Pataki, who became eligible last week, to have a complete roster.

“I think we have progressed a lot and the team has meshed,” Cunningham said. “We should have done better (at Brophy) but we had some slip ups. We really have potential to be good. We need to find some consistency. We go on runs and all of a sudden, it’s not there.

“We need to be able to close out matches against the good teams. We can play with them but haven’t been able to finish it.”

One thing that wasn’t finished was the career of Johnson, who was granted an additional year of eligibility by the AIA after missing the 2015 season fighting cancer.

His presence on the team as the libero has been something Webb believes inspires the Thunder to be at their best.

“He is the heart and soul of the team,” Webb said. “He’s such a great motivator. You know everything he has been through and he still has a great attitude. It’s been great having him part of the team.”

Johnson, who had a tumor in his right femur and returned to the team last year, thinks the team can be a force by the end of the year.

“We definitely have the potential,” he said. “We can contend with the really good teams. Brophy is undefeated and we were really close with them. We beat some good teams in California. When we put it all together we can play with anyone. We just have to do it more often.”

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