Who is out there?
Just about any team you can think of.
That’s what happens when a team like Xavier wins two 6A Conference state championships in a row.
There’s a big target on the Gators’ backs entering the 2019 season, and everyone wants a piece of them.
Coach Lamar-Renee Bryant picked the team last week and the Gators began preseason practice this week at nearby Brophy Prep.
The team lost a handful of key players to graduation from last year’s 33-9 finisher, including setter Shannon Shields, libero Ashley Yeung and outside hitter Hayley Nash.
This year’s team will feature seven returning players and seven new ones, including a pair of freshmen. There would have been eight returners, but junior Serena Turner has decided not to participate and will concentrate solely on beach volleyball, which she will play two years down the road at Stanford.
“We will be super young and will have to learn how to play together,’’ Bryant said.
At 6-foot-1, Turner gave the Gators some size but now they will have to press on with a bigger role falling on the shoulders 5-10 senior Bri McKnight. She will get assistance up front from 5-10 senior Jasmine Knight at middle blocker and 5-11 senior Juli Westfall on the outside.
Figuring out how to replace Shields, last season’s Gatorade Player of the Year in Arizona, will be a key element. There are three candidates -- junior Zaira Reyes, sophomore Alexis Shiner and freshman Lexi Yoza. For four years, Shields had developed into one of the top setters in the state’s history.
A similar situation exists when talking about someone stepping in to replace Yeung at libero.
At least in the beginning, Bryant might go with two different people, senior Abby Converse and junior Kaori Robertson, until one grabs the reins for her own. Both will be counted on for their all-around play this season.
Seniors Abby Converse, left, and Bri McKnight, right, await their chance to return service during a preseason practice at Brophy this week (Photo by Don Ketchum).
One of the most cerebral players for the Gators will be Converse, who with Turner helped Xavier claim the beach title last spring. Converse seemingly doesn’t have a lot of free time. She is a member of the Arizona Interscholastic Association’s Student Leadership Activities Committee, is a member of Xavier’s Mu Alpha Theta, is in National Honor Society, and is involved with Xavier’s student government as Secretary of State. And there is public-service and charity work.
Converse also hopes to be accepted to Stanford and play beach volleyball there.
She has learned quite a bit in the sand that helps her on the indoor court.
“In beach, you are a hitter half the time, you learn what’s going through a hitter’s mind and that helps out here,’’ she said. “I have a better idea of that they are doing on the other side and am able to adjust accordingly. ‘’
She is well aware of the challenge that awaits the Gators over the next few months.
“That’s one of the biggest things for us – everybody wants to have their best game against us. We need to work every single day and work hard.’’
After graduating from XCP, Knight will move on to Virginia Commonwealth, where she will join former Xavier teammate Alyna Draper.
“With a lot of different players, it will be different than last year, but we can still do what we need to do if we work hard,’’ Knight said. “It all starts right now. There are a lot of really good teams waiting out there for us.’’
Because the Gators do not have as much height as they have had in the past, Knight says she is taking it upon herself to be more precise on the block.
“You can’t wait too long. You have to be ready to go get the ball,’’ she said.
The Gators will need to play smarter and not be outworked.
“That’s what we did last year. We did that against a lot of good teams and did not allow them to beat us,’’ Knight said.
Knight and McKnight are close friends, having worked together at Xavier since they were freshmen.
McKnight said as seniors, they will help with the team-bonding aspect this year.
“We definitely need that, getting together for activities such as team meals on game days,’’ she said. “We want to work with the younger players. We have a really good group. Soon, it will be their time to shine.’’
Her “volleyball IQ’’ has improved, “and that will help me know better where to place the ball’’ while floating in the air for the kill, she said.
McKnight, who is heading to UC-Santa Barbara, also is looking to help Knight on defense.
“When you make a good block and the crowd goes crazy, that’s a great feeling,’’ she said.
Another great feeling would be to hammer home the match point for the championship as McKnight did last season against Tempe Corona del Sol.
Will the Gators get that chance? We are ready to find out.
Xavier will participate in an annual four-team scrimmage on Aug. 28 at Chandler Hamilton. The other teams are Hamilton, Chandler Basha and Phoenix Sunnyslope. Hamilton is among the favorites to push Xavier this season.
Xavier will play in three tournaments this season – the House of Payne at Chandler High on Sept. 6 and 7, the Durango Classic in Las Vegas on Sept. 20 and 21, and the Nike in the Phoenix area on Oct. 4 and 5.
XAVIER PREP 2019 VOLLEYBALL ROSTER
Abby Converse, 5-7, Sr.; Jasmine Knight, 5-11, Sr.; Bri McKnight, 5-10, Sr.; Zaira Reyes, 5-10, Jr.; Kaori Robertson, 5-6, Jr.; Alexa Shiner, 5-7, So.; Isabella Sinacori, 6-1, So.; Emma Soderstrom, 5-8, So.; Kate Tax, 6-0, Fr.; Katelen Tellez, 5-9, Sr.; Tiffany Tellez, 5-9, So.; Quinn Voorhees, 5-10, Sr.; Juli Westfall, 5-11, Sr.; Lexi Yoza, 5-9, Fr..