Central Valley makes volleyball look so easy.
Before and after each play the smiles are broad and the laughs easy, and in between the Lady Bears can turn bump-set-kill into an athletic haiku.
“It’s not easy,” coach Chris Kosty said. “It’s all hard work. It all comes hard and it all takes a lot of work.”
“It looks easy because we work on those plays so hard every day in practice,” senior setter Tia Pau explained. “Our practices are so grueling. It’s fun and I love this team. But we work hard together because we all want the same thing: to get back to state.”
As hard as CV works each day in practice, the road to state will be that much harder.
This year the Greater Spokane League and Mid-Columbia Conference combine for a sub-regional tournament. The No. 1 seeds from each league play for the top-seed into the state Class 4A volleyball tournament. The No. 2 seeds meet in a loser-out game for the right to play the loser of the No. 1-seed game for the final state berth.
After knocking off top-ranked Jackson in the championship game of the last week’s Crossover Classic tournament, Mead is the No. 1-ranked team in the state and, with three games to play, the likely No. 1 seed from the GSL.
“Our job is to finish the regular season as the No. 2 seed,” Kosty said. “Any way you look at it, we’re going to need some very big wins to get back to state.”
The key for the Lady Bears is a large senior class that makes up half of the roster: 5-foot-11 outside hitter Taylor Butters (a second-team All-GSL selection last year), 5-9 setter Tia Pau, 6-2 middle hitter Katie Wardsworth, 5-9 outside hitter Carly Wolf, 5-11 outside hitter Kiendra Chester, 5-7 libero/outside hitter Erika Bowden and 5-11 outside hitter Sequoia Lofton (a transfer from West Valley and a first-team All-Great Northern League selection last year).
CV graduated three All-GSL players from last year’s state team, but those state tournament games were enough to inspire this year’s squad.
“We all dedicated ourselves to doing whatever it takes to get us back to state this year as seniors,” Butters said. “Most of our senior class has been playing together since we were kids. A few of us came and went over the years, but we’ve all played a lot of volleyball together. We played a lot of volleyball over the summer and that really helps.”
“We’ve been lucky to get two great classes back-to-back,” Kosty said. “The program has been very lucky that way. This senior class has been working with the younger players, helping to bring them along and work with them to make them better.”
The team’s offense features a wide array of hitters, both inside and outside. Butters is a dominant hitter on the outside and the team’s top scoring threat. Chester, on the opposite side, is equally dangerous. Lofton is a powerful option in the middle alongside 6-1 junior Alaina Gentile.
When teams shift their defensive alignment to stop Butters, Pau can feed Chester, short set Lofton or feed Gentile.
With all those options, it’s no wonder Pau plays with a permanent smile and an easy laugh.
“I have so many great options that it’s really fun for me to feed them,” Pau said. “What makes it even better is that I know them all so well. I know that to feed Taylor I need to get the ball a little closer to the net. I need to feed Kiendra differently. But I know them so well I know exactly how to pass the ball to them so that they’re the most effective.
“There have been a few games where we’re really been firing on all cylinders and everyone was just on fire. That is the best feeling to be so on top of our game and we want to get back to that feeling again and again.”
Kosty wants the same thing.
“We need to if we want to keep going against the teams we’re going to face to get to state,” he said. “The idea for us is for us to let our players be dynamic in our offense without the offense itself being dynamic. In fact, I’ve learned over the years that at the highest levels of this sport, the simpler the offense get. It’s about making teams stop what you do and not trying to come up with complicated plays to fool them.”
What stands out about CV is the joy with which it plays. The laughs are as much a part of this squad as the name stitched across their uniform.
“This the best part of my life right now,” Butters said with a broad smile. “I love my teammates. I love playing with them and I love working hard with them.
“As seniors, we’re all very aware that this is our last chance and we feel the urgency. And I think we’re all committed to making it pay off. I wish we could have gotten to where we are now without having lost any games along the way. But we’re going to keep getting better and I know we will.”