Texico junior Lori Richardson looks to tap the ball during practice Thursday at Texico. CNJ photo by Eric Kluth
By Eric Butler: CNJ correspondent
Many observers at last year’s state tournament felt Fort Sumner was more than capable of winning the Class 2A or even 3A title.
Only one problem for Fort Sumner: Those observers were saying the same thing about Des Moines — the squad that barely edged the Vixens in five games in a Class 1A semifinal.
But Des Moines graduated several key components from its third-straight state championship team while Fort Sumner lost no one.
Vixens coach Lisa McMath says that if her squad is now considered a favorite for the 2004 title, Fort Sumner fans better enjoy it while it lasts.
“If it’s not this year, it’s going to be a long, dry haul before the next one,” says McMath, who led Fort Sumner to the Class 2A crown in 2000.
The Vixens feature strong blocking in the middle with twins Sandy and Kelly Fortner as well as Tobea Patterson. They also have a potent outside hitter in Kayla Britain and dependable setting by all-stater Leslie Wood.
They’re all seniors, however, so another close-but-no-cigar moment at state would likely linger much longer if it happens again.
One team hoping to give Fort Sumner some trouble in district is Melrose. The Buffaloes, however, have a new head coach for the third straight year in Jason Lee.
Coaches who watched Melrose throughout the year think that 6-foot, 1-inch Audrey Hemminger was playing her best ball at the end of the season and should be a potent offensive force from her middle position.
Another small school team that had a similar experience to Fort Sumner’s at last year’s state tournament was Texico.
The Lady Spikers fell in five games to eventual Class 2A champ Hope Christian in a quarterfinal match.
Like the Vixens, Texico brings back the core of that squad.
“I hope we have some confidence — if I don’t take it out of them,” says Mike Littlejohn, entering his 26th year as Texico’s head coach.
The Lady Spikers have experience on the front line, including strong-side hitter Lori Richardson and weak-side attacker Ashley Littlejohn. It’s also a group that was bolstered by the transfer of Stephanie Bailey from Grady.
“She’s a good one. It gives us a lot of depth,” Mike Littlejohn says. “We can use her on the strong side and also to rotate with Ashley on the other side.”
At Grady, the Bronchos still have a solid group of returnees — including sisters Jennifer and Heather Blackburn, setter Brittany Bailey — and should contend for a playoff spot out of a district that includes Logan, House, San Jon and Clovis Christian.
Clovis Christian is eligible to qualify for the postseason for the first time and may be able to cause some district members a few problems.
CCS coach Ceil Boatman isn’t shooting for the stars just yet, however.
“I would like to see us, by district tournament, be at least in the middle of the standings,” Boatman says. “Anything above that would just tickle me pink.”
2003 record: N/A
The Eagles are a young team, with only one senior — setter Melissa Gomez — coming back with any varsity playing experience. Clovis Christian coach Ceil Boatman says she’s counting on the development of her middle hitters, juniors Sam Barnett and Tasha Daale, as a key to success for her team. Gomez will rotate with sophomore Sidnee Pool and those setters will also have juniors Jenna Burgin and Jennifer Jacoby at the outside hitting positions to pass to. Senior Brielle Mawres and junior Sarah Bolyard provide depth on the front line while junior Amanda Montanez will see frequent playing time on the back row.
2003 record/playoffs: 22-5, advanced to 1A state semifinals
With strong setting from Leslie Wood, outside hitting from Kayla Britain, middle blocking by Sandy Fortner and Tobea Patterson (all seniors), the Vixens are poised for a state championship run. But if Fort Sumner has an Achille’s heel, it’s depth. Senior Kelly Fortner missed the last part of 2003 due to an ACL injury and is only now just starting to play again. If any of the other six regulars — including juniors Julie Wood and Lindsay Mansell — go down, Fort Sumner would be forced to turn to untested sophomores (or younger) as replacements.
2003 record: 12-8, no postseason
New coach Missy Glover has plenty of returnees as she begins her first season of heading a volleyball team. One key for the Bronchos may be the consistency of senior hitter Jennifer Blackburn, who has a powerful but sometimes erratic stroke from her outside hitting position. Jennifer’s younger sister, Heather, will be utilized at various spots along the front line while senior Taris Pond and sophomore Aerial Verble will also beoptions for setter Brittany Bailey. Freshmen Katarina Grau and Alora Pond will help on the back row for Grady, which also got a transfer student who should help. Sophomore Jennifer Franklin, a transfer from Hartley, Texas, will be used at an outside hitting position for the Bronchos.
2003 record: N/A
Senior Audrey Hemminger is undoubtedly new coach Jason Lee’s top option.
“Our ball handling needs to get better, but if you give her a good pass on the ball, she’s gonna hit it hard,” Lee says of 6-0 Hemminger. Robin Reed, a senior, and sophomore Alisha Wagley are stationed at Melrose’s strong-side hitting position. A pair of freshmen, 5-10 Toni Burdine at middle and outside hitter Taneil Roberts, could help the Buffaloes turn into a potent offensive unit by the end of the season. Setters Kelly Fish and Vanessa Dodd will not only alternate at that position, but also at the weak-side hitting spot.
2003 record: 19-6, advanced to 2A state quarterfinal
Veteran Lady Spikers coach Mike Littlejohn thinks he has one of the better hitters in the area in junior Lori Richardson. “Lori, when she gets it all together, hits it about as hard as anybody I’ve ever had — she hurts it,” Littlejohn says. But she’s not the only one with experience on the front line for Texico. Senior outside hitters Ashley Littlejohn (coach’s daughter) and Ashley Kidd will rotate with transfer Stephanie Bailey while the middle will be manned by returnees Amber Parmer, a senior, and junior Erika Autrey. Texico’s setter position, the only question mark, will be handled by either senior Seneca Turner or frosh Bryn Mayfield. “She’s an athlete; she’s going to be good,” says Littlejohn of Mayfield.