After nearly every point, whether they are winning or losing, members of the Desert Vista volleyball team come together and share smiles and often some laughs.
Longtime head coach Molly West often has to lean over the court boundary to remind them to focus, but it’s rarely done on a stern manner. She knows it’s a sign of the chemistry and overall closeness between players on the team.
And it’s that sense of togetherness that has so far helped Desert Vista thrive in a pandemic-altered season.
“I can appreciate the fact that they’re having some fun out there, they need to have that,” West said. “The thing I worry about sometimes is their ability to recover quickly. Sometimes it takes them a little longer because they are too relaxed.
“I’m glad they’re having fun, we are just young.”
The coronavirus pandemic set Desert Vista behind in the summer, as volleyball was unable to practice until late July and into August. Even then, many of the drills the girls had become accustomed to over the course of their time with the program had to be altered. Masks also had to be worn at all times, which at first presented a difficult atmosphere.
As a result of some school district opting not to begin with others across the East Valley and state, Desert Vista’s schedule was altered. The Thunder only play 15 games versus 17 like some other teams. Additionally, there are a couple of circumstances where they play three times in one week, often resulting in back-to-back matches.
Desert Vista wrapped up a 3-1 victory over rival Mountain Pointe last Thursday to improve to 7-1 at the midway point of the season. The Thunder’s only loss came in a 3-0 affair to Highland, one of the top-ranked programs in the state.
That match, however, was Desert Vista’s third of the year in September. At that point in time several members of the team were still adjusting to playing at the varsity level. A tall task in itself when the varsity roster is comprised of only sophomores and juniors.
West said she is still looking for girls to solidify them as leaders of the program. Some are beginning to stand out, including juniors Kylie Moran and Logan Blutreich.
“We are really close outside of volleyball, we are like a family,” Moran said. “We know what to do to cheer each other up when we are down and how to motivate everyone.”
Through eight games, Moran leads the Thunder in kills and is among the top players for aces. The junior has established herself as one of Desert Vista’s go-to players when points are needed.
Her explosiveness at the net has played a key role in Desert Vista’s success through the first half of the season, and she’s having fun while doing it.
“Even if at times we get stressed, we know how to have fun with it,” Moran said. “That’s one of the points of the game, is to have fun. We don’t get down if we are behind. We know how to balance the fun and competitive nature of the game.”
Blutreich, a 6-foot-3 middle blocker, is following in the footsteps of her older sister, Brooke, who was a senior captain for the Thunder last season.
She sees herself as a vocal leader for her team, motivating the other players if they make a mistake or if the team falls behind in a match. She said much of her new-found leadership qualities stem from watching her sister at the varsity level last season.
“I try to be a role model just like she was as a senior,” Blutreich said. “I try to be pretty vocal and motivate the other girls if they’re struggling.”
Much like Moran, Blutreich has become a force on the net. She leads the team in blocks with 27 and is second on the team in kills with 63 through eight games.
She credited the team’s off-the-court friendships for their success this season but agrees with West in the ability to get better and truly find their identity as a team by the time the state tournament begins in November.
“There are definitely times where we need to focus more,” Blutreich said. “That starts in practice. We just need to work hard and work together.”
Desert Vista was ranked No. 6 overall in 6A as of Friday’s updated rankings. West hopes to remain in the top eight to avoid the play-in tournament and secure a first-round playoff game on their home court.
Though, she admits she would like to see them continue to climb and potentially secure more than just the one postseason match at home. But that’ll take an added sense of discipline on the court.
“We are really focused these girls being disciplined and focusing on the little things,” West said. “Everything can’t be fast, it sometimes has to be deliberate to manage tough situations. That’s kind of part of the youth thing with us, but they’re getting better.”