FARMINGTON — Piedra Vista has been atop District 1-5A for years, and after coming up short in the state title match each of the last three seasons the Lady Panthers are geared up for another run.
It won't be an easy task for PV, which graduated seven players, including three First Team All-State selections, and one Second Team selection.
PV head coach Ron Becker said this year's group of players have enthusiastically stepped into their new roles and are looking good as the season opener on Thursday approaches.
"I'm pretty pleased with the way they're looking so far. They put in a lot of work over the summer and are playing pretty well," Becker said. "We lost a lot of seniors from last year, but they've stepped in and are doing a good job. We've got a lot of work to do, of course, but they've been doing pretty well so far, so I'm pretty pleased with them."
Becker said he'll be looking to the team's four seniors — Alex Johnson, Autumn Begay, Sheston Culpepper and Hannah Robinson — to provide leadership for the team. He said all four seniors have varsity experience and he expects they'll transition into their new roles smoothly.
The Lady Panthers don't list much size on the roster, and to compensate they'll play the up-tempo style that has given the program success in the past.
Despite the hit the team received from graduation and lack of size, Becker expects this year's version of the Lady Panthers to be every bit of a state title threat.
"To be honest, I have the same expectations as I had last year, even though we lost seven seniors. I really can't go in and say this is a rebuilding year because I think we just reloaded," Becker said. "I have really high expectations and would be pretty disappointed with anything other than making it pretty deep into the state tournament."
PV wasn't the only team gutted by graduation.
Aztec will have a new look this season after graduating eight players.
While the Lady Tigers lack experience, head coach Anna Strauss believes they have the potential to develop into a dangerous team when they begin district play.
"They're a very enthusiastic bunch of girls and they're eager to learn. We're going to be pretty tall, I think we're going to be above average height," Strauss said. "We have some youth, but I think they are going to develop into something special."
Aztec reached the 5A state tournament last year after finishing second in the district. Back to lead the Lady Tigers are junior Vanessa Chavez and sophomore Myra McCaskill, the two players with meaningful varsity experience after playing in 74 of a possible 76 sets last season.
"They're excited and they had great role models from the past few years to teach them," Strauss said. "Sometimes with younger players you have to repeat yourself, but it's not like that with these girls. They understand it the first time and I don't need to repeat myself."
Strauss said the strength of the team will be its height and athleticism, and she feels it will help lead them back to the state tournament and hopefully a district title.
"We are going to have a very strong blocking team because of our height," Strauss said. "Offensively, since we're going to be so tall, and with the ability to jump and get off the floor, they'll be able to put the ball down. Expectations are high just like everyone else and we want that district title."
After missing the state tournament in 2014, Farmington is looking to climb the district standings in 2015.
FHS only graduated two players from last year's team, but once again the Lady Scorps will be a young squad.
"We've got a younger team this year. This is probably the youngest team I've had," FHS head coach Dan Hickman said. "But that being said, they're doing well. We have a couple seniors who are really strong and they're going to have to lead the pack."
Hickman said he'll be looking to senior setter Ashley Flack, who served as team captain as a junior last season, and senior middle hitter Georgia Willie to lead the program.
Hickman also expects junior libero Lexie Jackson to play a big role this season.
"Those three gals are going to be kind of the core for setting the tempo and we have a variety of girls who are meshing around them," Hickman said.
FHS' youth comes on the outside, where freshmen Bergen Campbell and JJ Curry are expected to see a lot of playing time with the height and athleticism they possess.
"I'm kind of invested in the future this year, and I'm trying to get them some time on the court so they can grow into a state championship team in the next few years," Hickman said.
PV, Aztec and FHS will all open their season Thursday.
PV will host San Juan (Utah) and FHS will host Pagosa Springs (Colo.).
Aztec will get its season underway at the Belen Tournament, which runs through Saturday.
Karl Schneider is the sports editor for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4648 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @karltschneider on Twitter.