Eight for the big show
Wildcat seniors cap careers with state trip
Friends, teammates and competitors.
That’s what links the eight seniors on the Fruita Monument High School volleyball team.
Most have been playing together for more than seven years.
Now, those seniors and the rest of the Wildcats are headed to Denver to play in the Class 5A state volleyball tournament. The last time a Fruita Monument volleyball team qualified for state was in 1981.
The eight seniors — Joelle LeFevre, Loryn Chiapuzio, Jordan Eatwell, MacKenzie Schuller, Savannah Ashmore, Lindsey Thomson, Kasey Dollerschell and Allie Hatch — have all been major contributors to the team’s success.
Coach Bob Richardson took over the program when this group of seniors were freshmen.
“I’m pretty excited for this group,” he said. “They were the project group, and I was looking forward to when they would be seniors.”
The Wildcats went 21-4 on the season and dominated teams on the Western Slope, losing only to Durango in a tight five-game match with Chiapuzio out with an injury.
Now, it’s off to state to face a powerful 5A field.
“There’s no better feeling than to get to your senior year and do well because there’s so many high expectations,” LeFevre said. “We’ve had our ups and downs, but we’ve been playing together for so long that we just click.”
The seniors know the years of playing together is a big reason they are making the trip to Denver.
“We’ve learned each other’s habits, and we know what we’re comfortable with, and that’s really helped us get to state,” Chiapuzio said.
Where the team clicks best is playing defense. Richardson said Fruita has to play good defense because the Wildcats don’t have a lot of size, especially compared to most Front Range 5A teams.
“We are certainly not one of the biggest teams. Actually, we’ll probably be one of the smallest teams at state,” he said.
Schuller, Eatwell and Thomson are the tallest, all at least 5-foot-10, but only Schuller is 6-foot. The Wildcats’ first opponent at state, Mountain Vista, has five payers listed at 6-foot or taller.
The lack of height hasn’t bothered or intimidated the Wildcats this season. Instead, they turn to their defense to sustain rallies.
“We are hard to score against,” Richardson said. “We get a lot of digs, and that allows us to get a lot more swings than the other teams. We try to sustain rallies and wear the other team down.”
The key on defense is LeFevre, who digs more than a coal miner from her libero position.
“She’s amazing. I honestly have no idea how she does it.” Schuller said of LeFevre. “When another team hits the ball so hard and she digs it up, it’s amazing. She really pumps us up.”
“Our strength is our digging and ability to control the ball. Joelle is really the heart of our defense,” he said. “She’s a four-year varsity player, and it shows in her ability to read the game.”
LeFevre, who has 637 digs this season, knows if the Wildcats are to succeed, she has to dig.
“I always tell myself that I need to get the ball up because if I don’t, then we can’t score,” LeFevre said.
Ashmore, the team’s setter, said defense is key to their offense.
“Our defense is really important, so we can run fast things, because we aren’t real tall,” she said.
That means quick sets and mixing up sets to a variety of hitters.
“We have to be patient with our defense,” Ashmore added. “If we don’t get a kill and it comes back over, we know our defense can get it up again.”
Chiapuzio said the many years playing beside LeFevre helps their back-row play.
“I know which balls to go for and which are mine,” Chiapuzio said. “We’re really comfortable with each other. It’s almost like we have a sixth sense with each other.”
Coming into the season, the Wildcats’ main goal was to make state. After a pressure-packed regional where they beat Grand Junction in three games and Fort Collins in four, whatever happens at state will just be icing on a satisfying season.
“Just going to state is a great opportunity for us as seniors,” said Eatwell, who led the team with 302 kills.
In volleyball, the depth and skill of Front Range 5A teams has long been the measuring stick for Western Slope teams. Richardson admits it’s difficult to compete against some of those teams because of the high level of competition Front Range teams play against year-round in the club and high school seasons.
Ashmore said the Wildcats are looking forward to seeing how they can compete against high-caliber teams.
“Playing good competition makes us better,” she said.
Fruita Monument plays Mountain Vista (21-4) and Cherry Creek (20-5) in pool play Friday. One team from the pool will advance to Saturday afternoon’s semifinals.
“We really want to beat them and at least keep up with them,” Chiapuzio said. “We’re really looking forward to playing Mountain Vista.”
The Wildcats lost to Mountain Visa in a tournament earlier this season and were knocked out of last year’s regionals by the Golden Eagles.
Chiapuzio’s grandfather passed away last week and she said he was a big supporter of her and the team.
“He and my grandma came to every game,” she said.
When they won regionals, she said it was an emotional time.
“When I saw my grandma crying when we won, that was really emotional,” she said. “We will definitely miss him.”
Chiapuzio said she thinks her grandmother will come to state, and that will be special.
As for state, the Wildcats are happy to be representing the Western Slope and being the first Fruita Monument volleyball team in 32 years to qualify for state.
“Before state, no one knew who Fruita was, and now they know,” Chiapuzio said. “I definitely think we left our mark.”
Richardson has no doubt this Fruita Monument team will be remembered for years to come.
“Sometimes you have a group and you know that for the next several years you will be comparing them to other teams and telling them about that group,” he said. “I think that this is that group.”