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3:49 AM Sat, Nov. 17th

Bradshaw Mountain volleyball enters 4A with young bunch

Bradshaw Mountain volleyball head coach Natali Sobczak watches the action as the Lady  Bears took on Flagstaff High School in a scrimmage at Prescott High School Wednesday, August 24, 2016. (Les Stukenberg/The Daily Courier)

Photo by Les Stukenberg.

Bradshaw Mountain volleyball head coach Natali Sobczak watches the action as the Lady Bears took on Flagstaff High School in a scrimmage at Prescott High School Wednesday, August 24, 2016. (Les Stukenberg/The Daily Courier)

photo

Bradshaw Mountain's Randee Clifford gets low to make a save as the Lady Bears took on Flagstaff High School in a scrimmage at Prescott High School Wednesday, August 24, 2016. (Les Stukenberg/The Daily Courier)

PRESCOTT VALLEY – Bradshaw Mountain High’s volleyball team moves up from the former Division III to the Arizona Interscholastic Association’s (AIA) reconstituted 4A Conference in 2016.

Bradshaw Mtn. High School Volleyball

2015 record: 8-13

2015 State Tournament: Did not qualify.

Top Returnees: Katherine Brannan, Randee Clifford, Brooklyn O’Connor.

Venue: Gary Kunow Gym, 6000 E. Long Look Drive; park in the east lot.

Tickets: $5 per adult; $3 per student.

Coach’s quote on 2016 season: “It will be a fun, exciting year! We are young and they are ready to compete.” Natali Sobczak

But what does that mean for the Bears, who graduated seven key seniors from a 2015 squad that finished with an 8-13 overall record?

Essentially, Bradshaw will be playing a considerably tougher schedule with a greener group of girls.

The Bears begin the 2016 season with two road matches. They will visit Phoenix Moon Valley today, Aug. 29, followed by Cottonwood Mingus Union Tuesday, Aug. 30. Both matches start at 6 p.m.

This season could be long and difficult for Bradshaw as a member of the 4A Grand Canyon Region with traditional powers Flagstaff and Prescott in the mix. And yet fourth-year Bears coach Natali Sobczak has good reason to stay positive.

Her program is growing from the bottom up with an influx of talented young ladies at the freshman and JV levels. Sobczak said that of 32 total girls, 14 are freshmen, two are seniors and four are juniors. Twelve are sophomores.

“This sophomore and freshman group are really competitive, and they just have a passion and desire that is really fun to be around,” the coach added. “It’s kind of a fresh start, practically.”

This fall, the varsity Bears have an 11-player roster which features three returners, each of whom started in 2015, in senior outside hitter Kat Brannan (5-foot-8), senior setter Randee Clifford (5-9) and right-side hitter Brooklyn O’Connor.

Bradshaw Mtn. Volleyball 2016 Schedule

All home matches in CAPS

DATE / OPPONENT / TIME

Aug. 29 / at Moon Valley / 6 p.m.

Aug. 30 / at Mingus^ / 6 p.m.

Sept. 1 / TEMPE / 6 p.m.

Sept. 6 / EST. FTHILLS / 6 p.m.

Sept. 10 / at Green. Invite / TBA

Sept. 13 / CACTUS SHA. / 6 p.m.

Sept. 15 / at Prescott^ / 6 p.m.

Sept. 16 / at Wolves Classic / TBA

Sept. 20 / MINGUS^ / 6 p.m.

Sept. 22 / COCONINO^ / 6 p.m.

Sept. 27 / at Flagstaff^ / 6 p.m.

Sept. 29 / at Lee Williams^ / 6 p.m.

Oct. 4 / MOHAVE^ / 6 p.m.

Oct. 5 / at Metro Tech / 6 p.m.

Oct. 7 / at Jaguar Invite / TBA

Oct. 18 / at Coconino^ / 6 p.m.

Oct. 19 / PRESCOTT^ / 6 p.m.

Oct. 20 / FLAGSTAFF^ / 6 p.m.

Oct. 25 / LEE WILL.^ / 6 p.m.

Oct. 27 / at Mohave^ / 6 p.m.

^ = 4A Grand Canyon Region match

Although all of the other players are new to varsity, Brannan said she likes how much the younger girls “care about volleyball.”

“They want to get better and they want to learn more things about the game, which is really exciting to have,” she said from practice Aug. 25. “They’re willing to work hard and to try new things.”

Clifford, a third-year varsity player, said Bradshaw will focus on developing a “team bond” this fall so that the girls “can play together and trust each other.”

Clifford broke her right hand during softball season last spring, but doctors cleared her to play in July. “I’m super excited for this year,” Clifford added. “There’s so much potential in us. Even though we’re young, we want it.”

In 2015, the Bears owned an 8-8 record heading into their final five matches of the season. But they floundered, losing all five to end any shot at the postseason. Clifford said Bradshaw must learn how to finish games.

“We figured out how to keep a play going, even when we’re out of system, but then not getting the final kill or the point,” Clifford added. “It really kills us in the end. We’d win the first two sets and then they [opponent] would come back and win all three. We must have stopped trying because we just lost all of that strength we had built in the first two, and then it just dissolved.”

Said Brannan, “There was a lot of games that we should have won. That was really frustrating. … I want to help the girls work hard and make sure I better them for their next season.”

Offensively, Clifford and fellow setter Saylor Ford should lean on Brannan as the primary left-side hitter. Clifford and Brannan, another third-year varsity player, have competed on the same team together since they were in seventh grade at nearby Glassford Hill Middle School.

Clifford and Ford will also set for newcomers Mailani Mannel and Jordyn Moser, who can hit from the front or the back row. Alyssa Weissenberger joins O’Connor as a right-side threat.

“As we start playing and working on some of the stuff that we know we need to work on, we’re going to be a pretty good all-around team,” Brannan said.

At middle blocker, Rylee Bundrick, hard-working Kaylee Kriwer (pronounced KREE-ver) and Sydney Rittershaus form the starting rotation. Reillie Smith gets the nod at libero.

“They’re not afraid of anything up there at the net,” Clifford said of her middles. “They’ll block the big Flagstaff [High] girls we had at the scrimmage [Aug. 24 at Prescott High], the Prescott girls. And they’re not afraid to take a swing at it either.”

Over the summer, Sobczak established a new local Club team, called Peak Volleyball Academy, with first-year Prescott High coach Josiah Ramirez. Coaches conducted several open-gym sessions and liked what they saw from the area girls.

“That [Club team], on all three levels, has really helped us [at Bradshaw],” Sobczak said. “You could just see the improvement from them playing more. They’re more competitive this year than they were last year. We’re not teaching the basics; we’re fine-tuning more, which is awesome.”

In the end, the difference might come down to team chemistry for the Bears in 2016. Clifford said the Bradshaw players get along pretty well – they’re “all pretty goofy” and “work together.” A strong start this season would help a green bunch build confidence.

“We’re all going to go out there and try hard,” she added, “so then it’s just going to be like steps.”

Follow Doug Cook on Twitter @dougout_dc. Reach him at 928-445-3333 ext. 2039, or 928-642-7865.