The Desert Vista girls volleyball team broke from protocol and had a team sleepover instead of a team breakfast.

It was the first step in defining their identity this season.

Then the season-opening match against just as highly-touted Hamilton gave them a better idea.

Throw in last weekend's Tournament of Champions at Westwood and the Thunder finally have a better feel for who they are in 2011.

"Each season is a new one," Desert Vista coach Molly West said. "It doesn't matter how many players come back, it takes some time to get an idea of what kind of team you can be.

"We started the year with a rough bump and we are slowly developing the players."

The Thunder opened the year with a 3-1 loss at Hamilton, came back to sweep Dobson and Chandler and then fared well at Westwood.

The hope was to make the gold round out of pool play and see where they ended up after that. Desert Vista was in Pool C at Red Mountain and played Saguaro, Chaparral, Red Mountain and Centennial.

The Thunder advanced to the gold portion of the tournament by going 3-1 in pool, but stumbled from there finishing 4-3 overall.

"No harm, no foul," West said. "We played some really good teams and played really good at times, but looked like we were asleep at times, too."

With the talent on the roster, the Thunder have expectations that go beyond the Westwood TOC.

"We want to win state," junior setter Michelle Steagall said. "It's early in the year and we are still figuring things out, but (the Westwood tournament) should help."

The process of developing chemistry and team bonding over pizza and watching movies began when Steagall had a sleepover at her house before the start of the year.

"That was great because we had a chance to get out of the gym and get to know each other's personalities," said junior captain Payton Shuckhart. "I think it went really well."

On the court, West went into the Westwood tournament expecting to play several different combinations of players to find the right rotation.

"We have some things to work out in order to find the right group on the floor," West said before the tournament. "We have a good idea, but this will really help define certain roles."

Desert Vista, which hosted Mountain Pointe Tuesday night, has one of the state's largest front lines with 6-foot-2 junior Brooke Honeycutt and 6-3 sophomore Vanessa Wesley at middle blocker.

Senior outside hitter Annii'ya Robinson gives the Thunder three big-time hitters as they have combined for 73 of the team's 105 kills on the season.

With junior libero Sydney Schumacher's receiving skills, Steagall's comfort level at the net and the big three hitters swinging away from all different angles, the Thunder will be one of the teams to beat by the end of the year along with Xavier, Gilbert, Hamilton, Corona del Sol and Basha.

Honeycutt said the most important thing they learned thus far has been about communication. It's not only needed but has to be done in a certain way.

"We have to keep the energy high," said Honeycutt, who had 27 kills in the first seven games of the season. "If we get down we can't think as individual players and play outside of the team. Instead of saying something like ‘You need to get that,' say "You got the next one.' We have to play for each other and not for ourselves."

That kind of thing is guided by leadership, and the biggest void from last season's semifinal run was the loss of leader McKella Williams, who moved on to Cal-State Bernardino.

The three captains - senior Riley Smith, Schumacher and Shuckart - have different ways of approaching their captaincy, but all of them fit nicely into the makeup of the team.

"It's a good group and it was an honor to be named a captain as a junior," Shuckart said. "We have our own relationships with everyone on the team and I have my own way of talking to everyone. We all do."

West knows it is early, but expects this squad to develop and get stronger as the year continues.

"Leadership is big every year," she said. "We have three different captains and they are still evolving, but I know we have the right people in place to get what we want to accomplish done."

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