Volleyball: Hilltoppers open 2008 Wednesday at St. Pius X

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By Mike Cote

When the New Mexico High School Coaches Association preseason Class AAAA volleyball poll was released last week, the Los Alamos Hilltoppers were listed in seventh place.

That’s just fine with Diana Stokes.

“I hope everyone overlooks us,” said Stokes, the sixth-year head coach of Los Alamos.

With only two returning starters going into the 2008 season, Stokes may just get her wish from most of AAAA’s competition, except for possibly one team.

When chatting last season with Moriarty head coach Kim Bell, Stokes was told the Pintos would never look past the Hilltoppers, who seem to give them trouble every time the two meet.

Los Alamos will have to give the Pintos some trouble this season if it has aspirations for winning a state title. Moriarty is the defending Class AAAA champ and has almost all of its team returning from that squad, not the least of which are twin sisters Kristin and Brandi Valencia.

The Hilltoppers, after an intense summer, are ready to get the 2008 season rolling. They open Wednesday at St. Pius X.

Los Alamos returns just senior Jessica Stokes and junior Taylor Ealey from the 2007 squad that went 13-9 but peaked at the right time, winning the District 2AAAA tournament and stunning Goddard to advance to the state semifinals before falling to the Roswell Coyotes.

2007 All-State honorable mention Jessica Stokes, who started last season on the outside but was moved to setter at about the halfway point of the nondistrict schedule, is expected to take over the setting duties full time.

Like most of the rest of the squad, Stokes spent a good deal of the summer honing her skills, even attending a setting camp this summer to further her skills.

She will spend a fair time setting to the 5-foot-10 Ealey, who emerged as a big presence at the net last season alongside graduate and college signee Kristina Little.

Beyond Stokes and Ealey, however, there will be a bunch of fresh faces.

Molly Willms, who came in off the bench in the back row as a sophomore last season, will likely be asked to assume a bigger role. Willms is the only other returner that saw much varsity action in 2007.

Willms may see time on the outside, along with newcomer Oksana Tretiak.

Despite her squad being thin on varsity experience, coach Stokes has so far liked what she’s seen out of her youngsters.

“Being the early season, there’s still a lot of little things we need to work on,” she said. “But this is the most amount of hitters I’ve had. I can go anywhere this year; the middle, the side or the back.”

Sabrina Little, a sophomore, could be a factor on the front this season as well, as could junior Nicole Moore. Moore injured an ankle during the preseason, however, which she is still recovering from.

Alex Nichols, another junior, may see some time at setter this season as well, while sophomore Sara Scott will start the early season in the libero spot.

During the summer, Los Alamos played at several events around the state. There, the team saw some top-notch big-school competition such as Rio Rancho, Eldorado and Cibola, as well as AAA contenders St. Michael’s and Pojoaque.

Stokes said she was impressed with most of the team’s outings this summer. While her team didn’t pull off a lot of big upsets, it held tough with most of the top-tier competition, keeping within a point or two in most of its contests.

While Stokes said the team should have some confidence going into the season, her biggest challenge as coach is to keep that confidence up during a killer nondistrict schedule, the vast majority of which will be played on the road.

Los Alamos’ first six dates – including a pair of tough tournaments – are all on the road. It won’t make its first home appearance until Sept. 23 against Las Vegas Robertson, which is no slouch itself.

With scheduled meetings against St. Pius, Academy, Pojoaque and Cibola at the Zia Classic Sept. 12-13, Los Alamos could be pretty light in the win column when it finally makes a home appearance.

It will be a tough test, to say the least, but Stokes thinks her team will get up for the challenge.

“I feel like, for being as young as they are, they’re ahead of the game,” Stokes said. “To me they look like a team that’s already played together and are just a little rusty....When we smooth out the little stuff, they’ll be good.”

The District 2AAAA season will start Oct. 1 against Taos.