Hayden's Samantha Huffar, right, tries to power the ball over Erin Koehler on Wednesday as the Tigers volleyball team practices in the Hayden High School gymnasium. The team will try to carry on success from last season, when it went 16-6.

Photo by Joel Reichenberger

Hayden's Samantha Huffar, right, tries to power the ball over Erin Koehler on Wednesday as the Tigers volleyball team practices in the Hayden High School gymnasium. The team will try to carry on success from last season, when it went 16-6.

Tigers volleyball team confident for fall

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2009 schedule

Sept. 5 at West Grand

Sept. 8 vs. Rifle, 4 p.m.

Sept. 11 at Meeker

Sept. 12 at Plateau Valley, 1 p.m.

Sept. 15 vs. North Park, 4:30 p.m.

Sept. 17 at Baggs, Wyo., 5 p.m.

Sept. 19 at Vail Christian, 1 p.m.

Sept. 22 vs. West Grand, 4 p.m.

Sept. 25 vs. De Beque, 5 p.m.

Sept. 26 at Vail Mountain, 1 p.m.

Sept. 29 at West Grand, 4:30

Oct. 2 vs. Paonia, 4 p.m.

Oct. 5 vs. Moffat County JV, 5 p.m.

Oct. 9 at Rangely, 4 p.m.

Oct. 10 vs. Baggs, Wyo., 5:30 p.m.

Oct. 13 at Soroco, 4:30 p.m.

Oct. 22 at North Park, 4:30 p.m.

Oct. 23 vs. Meeker, 4 p.m.

Oct. 24 vs. Soroco, 1 p.m.

The graduation of top athletes is as much a ritual of high school sports as homecoming. But it's difficult not to wince when looking at all the Hayden High School volleyball squad has lost.

The Tigers aren't complaining, and despite losing much of the skill and power that helped them to a head-turning 9-1 start a year ago, they are set on laying out an improved season in 2009.

"We had a lot of talented people last year, but we can get further this year," senior Jarah Woodley said. "If we put everything into it, we can get there."

There is no argument among Hayden's coaching staff or players that things won't be the same.

The team graduated a pair of power towers in Holli Salazar and Kylee Sweetser - the team's two kill artists. It is also without natural leader and veteran setter Caitlin Mahanna, who led in assists.

"We will have to be different," Woodley said. "We will be quicker as a team and better on defense."

Relying on an improved defense is a teamwide goal, and it's not an idle hope.

Hayden returns two of its three top blockers. Senior Rachel Koehler had nearly twice as many stuffs as anyone else, and her sister, sophomore Erin Koehler, finished third on the team.

Second-year coach Greg Johnson said Woodley will step in as the team's libero, or defensive specialist, offering the squad stability and skill at the net and around the court.

"We'll have more of a defensive-orientated team effort this year than a few big hitters," Johnson said. "We are getting better every day, but we still have quite a ways to go to reach the level we were at last year."

That success last fall seemed to come out of nowhere. The team had struggled mightily in 2007 while starting many of the same players. It slowed a little after a fast start in 2008, but the team still finished at a much-improved 16-6.

Hayden lost a chance to continue on in the postseason after losing a tiebreak in the district tournament.

If this fall's squad is to surprise as many as last year's did, it will need to rely on more than defense.

Again, the 6-foot, 1/2-inch Rachael Koehler may be the key.

"We're really counting on her for our offensive production," Johnson said. "Her hitting has been a lot better, and we'll be putting pressure on her to put the ball away. Last year she might have been the second or third option, but this year she's No. 1."

She's likely to be joined as one of the team's top scorers by junior Delanie Vedepo and seniors Keisha McClintock, Ashlee Doolin and Aubree Haskins.

"We may be a defensive team, but we still can hit," Woodley said. "We have some girls who can slam it down and get those kills."

A dry erase board stood in the corner of the Hayden High School gymnasium Wednesday afternoon, scribbled full of the team's goals and aspirations.

At the top, in big, black letters was a one-word summation: "State."

That'd amount to a serious improvement over last year, but one the Tigers insist is not out of the realm of possibility.

"We have a long way to go, but we're getting a lot better," Koehler said. "It's going to take work, but this year we can move on through regionals and to state."

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