Pride's Kendall Gray (13) tips the ball during the volleyball match between Perry Pumas and Mountain Pointe Pride at Perry on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013.

David Jolkovski

The East Valley has been home to some of the state’s top girls volleyball programs for years and that doesn’t look to change this season.

In Division I, Gilbert and Hamilton will return as bona fide contenders for a state crown while Perry looks to continue its upward trend. A level lower at Division II, Campo Verde prepares to improve on last year’s run to the state finals.

Coming off a 37-8 season in 2013 that saw it come within one set of winning a state title, Hamilton will enter the season as a clear-cut favorite due to all of the returning talent on its roster.

The Huskies are paced by junior Olivia Hallaran and senior McKenna Woodford, who led the team in kills last year (237 and 236, respectively). Including Hallaran and Woodford, Hamilton returns its top four kill producers from 2013 as well as its top three blockers.

“I think this group of kids has worked really hard,” coach Sharon Vanis said. “We only have two seniors again, so that leadership is going to be important. A couple of younger kids are going to have to play bigger roles.”

No other team may need its younger players to step up more than Gilbert.

The Tigers, who went 33-9 and reached the state quarterfinals last season, will be led by a pair of young studs in sophomore outside hitter Kaitlyn Lines and junior outside hitter Makenna Martin. Lines had a team-high 411 kills last season while Martin was third on the team in kills (214) and digs (252).

The biggest question mark for Gilbert is who will play at the net. The Tigers loses their top two blockers from a year ago, although sophomore middle blocker Alexa Rockas has potential after finishing third on the team in blocks in 2013.

While Gilbert and Hamilton maintain their positions as favorites to compete for a title, Perry looks like a team on the rise.

The Pumas finished 25-15 and made the Division I playoffs for the first time under former Mountain Pointe coach Fred Mann in his first year at the helm.

Mann previously led the Pride to seven boys volleyball state titles and one girls state title.

Perry loses Talise Babbitt, who was second on the team in kills (335) and aces (97), which will thrust junior outside hitter Taylor Knoll into a leadership role after she topped the 2013 team in kills with 345.

Defensively, Perry should continue to be solid, returning its top three blockers in senior Maddie Leblanc and juniors Hannah Stevenson and Myla Durling.

Leblanc is one of only four seniors for Perry, with 10 underclassmen making up the rest of the roster (including three freshmen, two of which are 6-foot-2 front-line players).

“In my career … in 20 years we had four freshmen on varsity total and that’s over the span of 20 years,” Mann said. “This year, we’ve got three freshmen that are on varsity, which is a little bit unusual.

“I don’t know if that’s a good sign to have a lot of freshmen on the team or a bad sign to have a lot of freshmen on the team, but with these freshmen we have coming in, we think they’re pretty good and pretty special.”

Division I volleyball is loaded with top teams. In addition to Hamilton, Gilbert and Perry, Mesa, Basha, Desert Vista, Highland and Mountain Pointe all made the state playoffs last year. Corona del Sol is traditionally a strong program.

While DI is stacked, one East Valley team stands above the rest in Division II: Campo Verde.

The Coyotes moved up to Division II from Division III last year and all they did was claim the No. 1 seed in playoffs with a 41-9 record. Their year didn’t end the way they wanted to, losing 3-0 in the state finals to Sunnyslope.

This year, Campo Verde’s eyes will be squarely set on a state title despite losing Kaylee Boyse and Haley Christiansen.

It will be up to junior libero Maya Doyle, the team’s leader in aces (40) and digs (184), and sophomore outside hitter Justine Walker, the returning leader in kills with 56, to lead the Coyotes back to the state finals.

“This year’s team is very young. Campo lost a few key players from last year,” said first-year coach Tayler Bader, who replaces the highly successful Tricia Melfy. “I believe that this team, as young as they are, will be able to grow as a team together to make it back to the state finals.”

• Contact writer: (480) 898-6549 or esmith@evtrib.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Eric_Smith__.

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