Clay Webb

Desert Vista boys volleyball coach Clay Webb led his team to a championship and got its members through the trauma of the death of a student manager, Alex DePriest.

In just his second year leading the Desert Vista High boys volleyball team, Clay Webb is the Arizona Interscholastic Association’s 6A Conference Coach of the Year.

“It’s really special,” Webb said of the accolade. “There are a lot of really good coaches in the state, so I definitely feel blessed.”

The spring season was special for the Thunder, as the squad went 17-1 en route to a 6A state title win over Sandra Day O’Connor on May 11.

While a championship and the AIA’s recognition were the end result, they don’t tell half the story of Desert Vista’s whirlwind campaign.

The defining moment came midway through the season, when team manager Alex DePriest passed away suddenly at age 17. Webb’s squad was heartbroken.

“When I got the news of Alex passing away, I was at work. So, I had to compose myself because I had a class coming in,” Webb, who also teaches, recalled. “I had conversations with (team members) Ben Baldwin and Nick Heeres late into the evening after her passing.”

He added, “They asked, ‘Will the pain ever go away?’ Things that high school kids shouldn’t have to deal with.”

It was Webb’s responsibility to rally the troops.

“I had to be somewhat of the uplifting spirit for a while,” he said. “We had a grieving session with the entire team. Our athletic director was saying we could postpone these games. But our captains said we are going to play. It’s what Alex would want us to do.”

Unfortunately, a tragic passing is something Webb is familiar with. In high school, he lost a close friend, too. Instead of dwelling on the loss, Webb focused on the positives associated with his friend’s memory.

He used the same approach to help his Thunder players deal with the adversity.

Prior to becoming DV coach, Webb spent time helping the Hamilton volleyball team, where he once played.

He went on to serve as an assistant coach at Corona del Sol before taking the head coaching job at Mountain Pointe for two seasons.

His journey through local volleyball led him to Desert Vista and a special group of players.

“Alex was certainly who we wanted to dedicate our season to. In practice, we would use her spirit to motivate us. You need to play with that fire and passion that Alex had every day. I definitely felt the differences in practice,” Webb said.

His leadership was rewarded by the AIA.

Webb wasn’t the only Desert Vista team member to receive postseason recognition. Senior Ben Baldwin, who played libero, was named to the All-Conference First Team.

Two of Baldwin’s teammates, Jaden Rollins and Landon Fuller, earned spots on the All-Conference Second Team. At 6 foot, 8 inches, Rollins was a tower of terror in the middle of the lineup.

Rollins, whose natural talent is obvious, is perfect for the sport, while Fuller is somewhat new to volleyball. The junior took up the game just two years ago.

The coach raved about Fuller’s meteoric rise to the varsity level.

“I just saw him walking the campus one day and told him he looks like a volleyball player,” Webb said. “The kid is a sponge. He lives and breathes volleyball. Every single day he gets a little bit better.”

The state title and individual accolades affirmed a job well done for a team that endured highs and unthinkable lows.

“I definitely felt that we had our angel watching over us. We were trying to win it for Alex,” Webb said of the tough season. “This year was certainly one that I’ll never forget.”

Contact Brian Benesch at 480-898-5630 or bbenesch@timespublications.com. Follow him on Twitter @AZBenesch

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