Cactus girls volleyball knew it was basically starting from scratch this fall.
The graduation of Katie Beehler, Amanda Lauer and Rylea Simonich meant the Cobras were without three four-year starters that combined for 904 kills, 159 blocks and 453 digs on a 4A semifinal team last year.
So even finishing with a winning record (15-14) and edging out a couple region rivals for a spot in the 4A play-in round was an accomplishment. #10 Phoenix Thunderbird (33-5) ended #23 Cactus' season in Tuesday's game 25-13, 25-19, 25-13.
"We knew we were going to have to fight for every game," Cactus coach Jana Henige said. "Jessica Edwards is a senior who didn't get a lot of playing time but she's the heart of our team. Sheyla Payan was a transfer from Centennial last year and she plays club but she has a killer serve that can get us back into the game."
Other seniors like Rylan Gompf, Natalya Arneson and Penina Vito figured heavily into the Cobras' attack.
Several juniors emerged into bigger roles like middle hitter Sapphire Solano, outside hitter Delaney Heady and setter Jadyn Pauli. Outside hitter Makayla Price made a couple blocks in the third set Tuesday.
"People didn't realize they were that impactful like Delaney Heady and Jadyn Pauli. They surprised themselves and will have a good role next year," Henige said.
Thunderbird is full of impact seniors and juniors and is not thinking next year. Senior setter Malia Parris, senior libero Alison Miller and junior outside hitter Hayven Lick are three-year starters hungry for a first round win
Two years ago, the Titans nearly won in the first round before Deer Valley made a miraculous first round comeback at Thunderbird. Last year was equally heartbeaking, as #10 Flagstaff won the last two sets to take the first round match in five.
"From day one in our program, we work on really being focused and interntional, on playing with purpose," Thunderbird coach Carly Price said. "Our gols have been to be region champs, which we did and we were undefeated. We weren't quite in the top eight like we were the past two years, but I think the focus is on one game at a time and these girls do a good job of that."
Miller signed earlier Tuesday to play in college at Oregon Tech. Parris is another mainstay of this group's run.
Then junior Naomi Walsh emerged this year as a major offensive threat to pair with Lick. In many ways this Thunderbird team has a comparable sense of urgency to last year's Cactus squad.
"I think it's going to be Flagstaff," Price said. "We try to do as much scouting as we can. Just because you're ranked 10 doesn't mean it's not anybody's game. If it is Flagstaff, they have a big student section. We've been up there before. Sometimes we're stronger on the road. I just have a lot of trust in them, and there's a lot of love in this gym and a lot of love in this program. It's been cool to foster their growth the past four years."