Title chase begins in realigned District 1-5A

Kirtland Central and Bloomfield join Aztec and Farmington in what should be a highly competitive district

Jake Newby
  • Farmington has an even blend of seniors, juniors and sophomores on its roster for 2016.
  • The Lady Tigers look to benefit from maturity, as well as coach Anna Strauss' decades of coaching experience.
  • Formerly in Class 4A, Kirtland Central held its own against 5A teams last season by going 3-1 against them.
  • While Bloomfield is 0-2 right now, the team expects to improve as players get more acclimated to position shifts.

FARMINGTON — Now that perennial powerhouse Piedra Vista has moved up to Class 6A, the title race has opened up for the newly realigned group of District 1-5A volleyball teams.

Aztec's Kamryn Phelps (10) and Vanessa Chavez (5) block a ball on Sept. 4, 2015, during a game against Bloomfield at Lillywhite Gym in Aztec.

PV has been unstoppable this decade, relegating the rest of the district to vie for runner-up honors in each of the past six seasons. But now, Kirtland Central and Bloomfield will join Farmington, Aztec, Miyamura and Gallup in a district that should be highlighted by parity.

Last year's second-place finishers in 1-5A, the Farmington Lady Scorpions have undergone more change this summer than just reclassification.

The Lady Scorps recently hired Alana Rowland as their new head coach. Rowland, who spent the past 12 years coaching at the junior college level, said it's been an adjustment to coach high school students for the first time in her career.

"I was used to working with 21 or 22 year olds," Rowland said. "So when I came in with the mentality of working with adults, I kept going, 'Why don't you get it? Oh, because you're 13, my bad.'"

It's been a bumpy few weeks for Rowland, who said she's dealt with player injuries, an academic dismissal and an athlete from last year's team moving away. But she said the players practicing this summer have been receptive to her coaching style.

With four seniors, four juniors and four sophomores on the Lady Scorps' roster, Rowland said she's looking forward to seeing what everyone brings to the table. One of the juniors who is expected to contribute this year is setter Monica Briones, who Rowland said has a "refreshing personality."

"I've enjoyed coaching Monica, because you can tell she really listens to what the coaches have to say, and then she applies herself," Rowland said. "The setter has to be the quarterback, and she's been that for us."

Farmington's first test will come in an away game Thursday against 4A's Navajo Prep.

Farmington's Jadyn Curry serves the ball against Pagosa Springs, Colo., on Aug. 27, 2015, at Scorpion Gym in Farmington.

Aztec's head coach situation is the opposite of Farmington's. Anna Strauss is entering her 31st year as coach of the Lady Tigers, and after going 4-17 last year, the team has already taken positive strides by placing second in last weekend's Belen Tournament.

Strauss said she's eager to see how an experienced roster — one that includes six seniors — handles the district shakeup.

"They just matured over the summer, and that goes a long way," Strauss said. "They're all getting along, they believe in each other and they all have their own personal goals to go along with teams goals; they're all very focused."

Aztec has six players who are taller than 5 feet 8 inches — including three 6-footers — and that could make the Lady Tigers one of the better blocking teams in the area.

"We're going to block pretty well, we have a lot of tall girls at the net," Strauss said. "We have a lot of versatility, too. We have a lot of kids who can play a lot of positions and mix it up a bunch. I think that gives us a lot of options."

The Lady Tigers (1-1) hit the road  on Sept. 6 to play at Los Lunas.

Kirtland Central, Bloomfield anxious to face 5A competition

As one of two newcomers to District 1-5A, Kirtland Central isn't worried about regressing. By defeating Gallup, Aztec and Miyamura last season while still a member of Class 4A, the Lady Broncos proved they won't be outmatched this season.

"Every year is different, but we saw a lot of these teams this summer, too, and we stacked up pretty well," KC coach Nadia Watson said. "And actually our loss to Farmington last year was kind of like our wake-up call. I think the girls can get it done and keep pushing forward this year."

Watson said she's excited about how far the school's volleyball program has come in the past few years. She said more than 40 girls tried out for the team this summer, a much higher number than in previous years. Watson said she believes the girls who made the varsity team will get guidance from juniors Nia Nelson and Jasmine Shania John.

"Nia, Shania, those are two who will really be looking to lead this team and keep them together," Watson said.

On Tuesday, the Lady Broncos kick off their season in Farmington against Piedra Vista.

Kirtland Central's Tiana Aspaas returns a serve, next to Bioncee Yazzie during a Sept. 11, 2015, game at Jerry A Conner Fieldhouse in Farmington.

While Bloomfield has been swept in its first two matches this season, coach Rae Collins is optimistic her girls are on the right track.

"The more and more the girls are playing together, the better they're getting," Collins said. "I have a lot of girls moving around to new positions, so they've been learning on the go."

Bloomfield went 10-10 last year in 4A, but showed it was no slouch when the team defeated Kirtland 3-1 in the middle of the season.

Juniors Elena Flores, a setter, and Mattie Waresback, who transitioned from left side to middle hitter late last year, are a couple of the returning players who are expected to step up.

But leadership duties won't fall squarely on the shoulders of one or two Lady Bobcats. Collins said her returning core of players have to lead collectively, and she thinks the team will be nice and gelled by the time the district schedule rolls around.

"We're gonna match up well with everyone, I think," Collins said. "Last year, when the girls found out they were moving up, they were excited. And now that it's actually happening, they're getting even more excited."

Bloomfield will go for its first win Tuesday against Shiprock at the Chieftain Pit.

Jake Newby covers sports for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4577.