FARMINGTON — It is the final night of practice before teams leave for the state tournament. Thirty minutes after practice has ended and the Piedra Vista volleyball team has been rewarded with chocolate covered strawberries, but senior captain Katie Hegarty is still at work at Ron Becker’s volleyball gym.
“I stay here after practice every day working on hitting and everything else. I am getting it done because I love it so much,” Hegarty said.
The No. 1-ranked Piedra Vista Lady Panthers (20-1) begin pool play of the 4A state tournament Thursday at the Santa Ana Star Center against No. 8 Centennial and No. 9 Los Alamos. With the school’s first volleyball state championship at stake, PV is ready to make history.
“A Four Corners team hasn’t won state in 26 years since Aztec got a 3A title,” said PV head coach Ron Becker. “It has been a long time, and we are ready to end that drought.”
Despite earning the No. 1 seed, some are already counting the Lady Panthers out. New Mexico Overtime Sports predicted No. 2 Albuquerque Academy and No. 4 St. Pius X would play for the championship Saturday.
“That was a big slap in the face. It is like they don’t have any confidence in us,” Becker said. “I would love nothing more than to go prove them totally wrong, especially against teams that can recruit players like a college. It is so tough to compete against a school that stacks teams like that, but I would love for us to beat them or to even face another public school and see none of them get in.”
The Lady Panthers have a legitimate star at middle hitter in Hegarty, a verbal commit to Southern Methodist University. But Hegarty and the rest of the PV squad know this team has clicked because the whole team has clicked together as one unit.
“We have the best team chemistry of any team I have been on ever. From youth soccer until now,” Hegarty said. “We all hang out together, but when we are on the court we are serious. We all have competitive attitudes and we get after each other if we aren’t doing something right on the floor. But, after, we can all go get ice cream and hang out together. We are lucky.”
The team is a big mix of players from varying grade levels, but Becker said the members look at each other as varsity volleyball players and not as freshmen and seniors.
"This year we have had good luck with that not happening. The girls have all stayed together and haven't gotten big heads about it. All of the girls understand and know it will take all of us as a team to be successful."
Hegarty said the team has been prepared for the trip for eight months, noting she has had her bags packed for state for two weeks.
But none of the girls or Becker would have expected to be where they are now.
"I had no idea we would ever get to this point when I first started here," said senior captain McKenna Culp. "It has been an honor to be a part of this team. People have come and gone in the last four years, but we have always been a family, so that hasn't changed much."
Almost everything else has changed for PV, though.
PV has reach the state tournament nine years in a row now in Becker's 10th season coaching the team, but for the first time ever the Lady Panthers are legitimate contenders.
"We have had teams for years that have been average or good but not special at state," Becker said. "I know this group is smart enough to see the potential and the chance we have."
Instead of being the underdog team with an average record, PV enters with only one loss — coming to Cleveland, the No. 1 team in 5A.
For the first time in school history, PV won its own invite tournament against Monument Valley. The Lady Panthers followed the win up a week later by winning Santa Fe's Tournament of Champions.
Then PV shocked the state with its performance in Rio Rancho's tournament that ended with the defeat to Cleveland.
"We have had so many firsts this year. We have made history," Culp said. "But winning a state title would be indescribable. It is something we have all worked for endlessly and I think it will pay off."
Culp believes the team's past experience at the Santa Ana Star Center will make it easier to settle into the atmosphere at state, and she expects the team to feel at ease.
While Becker knows this is his team's best chance ever to win a state title, he also knows the team has to capitalize on Hegarty's senior season. He also knows it is the all-around team that has a chance to be special.
"Having Vanessa Harris step up at setter this year has been huge and she has done better than anyone could have imagined," he said. "It wouldn't work without her and Samantha Sofka, Olivia Johnson, our defensive players and all of our hitters. If everyone does their job, the result could be special."
There is nothing more the team would love than do deliver Becker his first state title, Hegarty said.
"He deserves it so much. I mean, he has his own gym here for us because he is so supportive," Hegarty said. "He is unreal. He deserves a state title and I hope it brings good feelings for the entire program."
Becker is ready to etch his name alongside state title winning coaches at PV such as Mike McGaha and Kevin Werth.
"It would mean the world to me. I got to the finals one year when I was helping coach Farmington, but that was it," Becker said. "We want to set the bar high like softball and baseball have by winning regularly. I wish I could make it look that easy, but I haven't built that kind of program, yet. Winning would be super great for the school to get that state title and help build the strength of PV. It will help get girls more involved because everyone wants to be involved with a state title program. Winning it would mean everything."