Hamilton volleyball the hunted in quest for three-peat - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

Hamilton volleyball the hunted in quest for three-peat

October 23rd, 2022 SanTan Sun News
Hamilton volleyball the hunted in quest for three-peat
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By Zach Alvira
Arizonan Sports Editor

Hamilton’s girls’ volleyball team is embracing the pressure that comes with winning back-to-back state titles.

The Huskies are in the midst of yet another successful season, as they currently sit at No. 4 heading into its match against Perry. Their lone loss of the season came in a fall break match against Xavier. It was a game that longtime head coach Sharon Vanis said was uncharacteristic for her team.

But getting every opponent’s best is something they’ve become familiar with this season. Every team is gunning for the Huskies. Every team wants to dethrone them from the top of the 6A Conference.

But the pressure is something Hamilton has come to embrace.

“We’re a huge target,” Vanis said. “It doesn’t matter we graduated nine seniors. We’re Hamilton and they want to beat us. We’re happy with where we are at, but we’ve still got quite a way to go.

“If you would’ve told me at the beginning of the season we would be where we are I wouldn’t have believed you. They come in every day and work hard.”

Hamilton’s back-to-back state titles came with rosters littered with talent. One of the most notable players from those teams was Jordan Middleton, an outside hitter that was pursued by most major Division I college volleyball programs.

Middleton decided on USC and is already making an impact for the Trojans. Much like she did at Hamilton leading the Huskies to two state titles in her four years.

With the departure of Middleton and other key seniors — nine in total — came the expectation that Hamilton would experience a slight rebuild. The Huskies has one returning full-time starter this year in Melia Barlow. Neomi Beach and Lauren Mullings saw considerable playing time but for the most part from off the bench.

That, however, was a motivating factor the three senior captains. They didn’t listen to the outside noise that they wouldn’t be good enough to sustain the program’s success. They got to work instead.

“We’re not bothered by anything like that,” Barlow said. “We have a really young team, and we lost a bunch of players. But we came back with strong young ones, and they have a great mentality.

“We’re just focusing on building our team, building our bond and things like that.”

Barlow, Beach and Mullings, the three senior captains, have all grown as leaders for the program and all lead in their own way.

Barlow stepped up and has become one of the team’s top setters in her now four years with the program. Mullings has become more vocal this year and helps motivate the younger girls on the team.

Beach has, in a way, taken on Middleton’s former role as the athletic outside hitter that can put away any ball in her vicinity.

“Jordan was like my big sister,” Beach said. “I learned so much from her. No matter how hard life and volleyball gets to push through. Get those kills, get those passes served, aces, everything.

“It took a lot of hard work with coach pushing me.”

With nine graduating seniors last year and only five on the roster this season, Hamilton has had to rely on several young players to fill voids at various positions.

Lucky for them, a talented freshman class made its way into the program.

Mikayla Haner and Nia Curry have stepped up in major ways for the Huskies. The two freshmen have combined for 331 kills this season and are behind only Beach with 464. They adjusted well to the speed from eighth grade volleyball last year to varsity this season, but there were still opportunities for the three captains to take them under their wing and show them the ropes to make them comfortable.

“Sometimes you have to pull them aside and tell them, ‘You got it, it’s not a big deal,’ if they mess up,” Mullings said. “It’s intimidating coming in as a freshman in front of the whole gym. They’re so mature for their age so they come in hard. We’re still playing teams with four years on them but talking to them has really helped.”

Now in her 18th season leading Hamilton’s volleyball program, Vanis says it’s hard to believe how fast it has gone.

Each team presents its own unique challenge for her as a coach. But that’s what keeps her on her toes. She, like her players, know the pressure that comes with chasing a third championship in a row. She knows her team still has talented opponents in the final two weeks of the season.

But she’s confident in her players.

“I think because people know what we lost, they feel like this is their year to get us,” Vanis said. “These girls have pride in being Hamilton Huskies. They know what the expectations are in this program.

“We’ve got a long road ahead of us with some tough opponents coming in. But we’re putting ourselves in the best position.”

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