Editor’s Note: Over the remainder of what was to be the 2020 spring high school sports season, sports editor Richard Smith will tell the story of teams and players — in particular seniors — that were preparing for major accomplishments this spring, only to see them wiped out as the spread of the coronavirus led to the cancellation of the rest of the school year.
Four games is not a big sample size, so even with a 4-0 record it is difficult to tell how good the Sunrise Mountain boys volleyball team was.
But veteran players that were on the Mustangs’ 2018 team saw similarities with that 5A state semifinal squad — and thought this group could be even better.
This time around, senior libero Colton Tutrone said, all of the Mustangs had multiple seasons of club experience and could play faster than most of their opponents. Senior opposite hitter Chris Middleton said this year’s team had no weak links.
“The majority of our players played for the same club, so we not only had the previous school seasons but club seasons also to gain this chemistry with each other,” Tutrone stated in a text. “So I believe that we could have made it just as far if not had an ability to make it to state.”
Like every other spring sports team the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools and ended the season well before Sunrise Mountain had a chance to see where it stacked up.
The team’s expectations this season were to secure another region title, which would have been the fourth straight. Coach Tony Gale stated in an email that the Mustangs also wanted to host a state playoff match and the ultimate goal was to win a state championship.
He said this group of players made great strides in improving physical skills as well as their mental skills.
Middleton said the program is at a point where it is pushing for big things every year.
“There’s never a better time than right now. That’s the mindset you should take out there every time you take the court,” Middleton said.
That mindset showed in the opening four matches as the Mustangs swept all four opponents in three straight sets. Their victims included surprise 2019 quarterfinalist and district rival Ironwood.
Most of the Mustangs play for the fairly new Momentum Volleyball Club. Playing during the most recent club season gave the Mustangs confidence, Middleton said, and also established defending champion Gilbert Campo Verde and Millennium as the toughest obstacles this season.
Before Momentum opened, the nearest boys volleyball club option was Arizona Fear, which was based at Brophy Prep in central Phoenix, and in the East Valley.
“That is the only volleyball club, really, for boys in the West Valley. Now we don’t have to drive an hour and pay $3,000 for Fear,” Middleton said.
Club participation lifted the program in the last four years, to where it joins Deer Valley, Ironwood and Millennium among the West Valley’s best.
Gale said all three seniors — outside hitter Hayden Creel, Middleton and Tutrone — were very dedicated to the sport.
“Each of them has played club volleyball for the last several years to improve their skills and to help maintain a high level of excellence in our high school program. Each of the boys showed passion and love of the sport and their teammates. They also always put the team first, they were willing to do what would help our team have the most success,” Gale stated.
Along with Sunrise Mountain, 5A contenders Millennium and Queen Creek Casteel were off to impressive starts, with both of those schools knocking off quality 6A teams.
Gale said the Mustangs looking forward to playing Liberty, Kellis and Campo Verde. The boys were also excited about the tournament we were scheduled to play in: Kellis Cougar Invite and the Higley Tournament, which would be their only remaining chances to bump into another highly rated 5A team.
“That was the toughest part. (Club) nationals is canceled now. We didn’t know we already had our last game (together),” Middleton said. “But we play every game like it’s our last. So we didn’t have regrets that a lot of other teams might.”
Since then, like most of the other teams whose seasons abruptly ended March 30, the Mustangs have caught up as best they could.
“We’ve “talked” quite a bit. I had group chats with all the players, varsity, JV and freshman (we created a freshman team this year because the strong interest in boys volleyball at Sunrise). We got to catch up a little bit when the players did a drive through for uniform collection,” Gale stated. “For the seniors, Hayden Creel, Chris Middleton and Colton Tutrone, this past Saturday, April 18, we had a parade by each of the senior boys homes. We stopped and dropped of their senior gifts and the underclassmen showered the seniors with candy, Gatorade, snacks and other small gifts...it was a lot of fun. Lastly, we will be doing a video call once or twice probably maybe even more in the next several weeks just so we can stay in touch.”
Middleton said the parade by senior houses was a nice touch.
Otherwise, they are missing the game.
“Most of the players and definitely their coach are going stir crazy...we are by nature active, competitive people and that is definitely missed,” Gale stated.
As Middleton mentioned, the cancellation of the club season ended the competitive year. And it is the end of the seniors’ competitive career.
Both Middleton and Tutrone said they looked into playing in college but opportunities were few and far between.
Tutrone said none of the volleyball programs he looked at had the degree program he wanted to study.
So Tutrone will attend Northern Arizona University and study mechanical engineering. He said he plans to play for the Lumberjacks’ volleyball club.
Middleton will attend Grand Canyon University to pursue a career in medicine with hopes of one day becoming a doctor.
Hayden Creel will be working in construction and plans to attend a trade school.
Tutrone’s favorite volleyball memory traces back to that 2018 season. Starting libero Jacob Faulkner was injured and Tutrone was thrust into the varsity lineup after only playing on junior varsity previously.
“I gave it my all that game and with the assistance of that year’s seniors, we made it through the game with a win,” Tutrone said.
All three seniors played crucial roles, particularly defensively. The good news for the Mustangs is, everyone else is coming back.
Juniors Jordan Shinault and Drew Van Treese will be keys to the attack, while junior Radu Iosifescu leads the block.
Sophomore Kyle Berger already is a two-year starting setter.
As Gale was quick to point out, nothing is certain right now.
“I don’t know if it’s a saving grace. Yes we will have a lot of returning players but you can’t really replace on the court experience ... so I’m not sure what to expect next year. I know we will have a lot returning talent but what will several months off from volleyball do their development ... that is the unknown,” Gale stated. “ What I do know is that they players that I expect to return next year will put in the time and effort to improve and to help us maintain the family feel about our program and the level of excellence we are striving to achieve.”