Greta Hannemann didn't mind watching her team play beach volleyball at Flagstaff Athletic Center East over the past few years.
With music playing, pines casting shade and a deck providing a place off the sand to watch from, it was a great place for fans to come witness the team make its way to an 8-3 season in 2016 and a 12-1 mark in 2017, its fourth year of existence.
But now, Hannemann and the Coconino Panthers are ready to bring the party to the school's campus, becoming one of the few beach programs in the state to play its home matches on school grounds.
It's a fitting year for the Panthers to show off their new sand courts because the AIA officially sanctioned the sport for this season and implemented a rankings system.
After the team finished the 2017 regular season with a perfect record and made the second round of the Division I state tournament, the school approved the construction of the sand courts, which sit just behind the softball fields.
“Just being part of the Coconino community, we don’t feel like we are a club sport competing several miles away anymore, so the kids are able to get dressed and walk out with their friends who are going to baseball or softball or track," said Panthers head coach Greta Hannemann. "They are seen training on campus and that’s part of the high school community. It’s important for the girls.”
While the team will be without Drew Hannemann for the first season ever, the Panthers return eight players to their roster, including senior Dana Parker, who played at the No. 1 spot with Drew for the past three years. The duo went undefeated a year ago on the way to the postseason, playing a key role in beating the Millennium Tigers, 3-2, in the regular-season finale to lock up the team's perfect mark.
Coconino's Taya Fordyce serves the ball during beach volleyball practice Friday at Coconino High School.
“We have players that have good experience," Greta said. "Dana has set herself apart from everyone, she is just a phenomenal athlete. They all know someone is looking to fill in Drew’s spot in that number one.”
Parker has half of the No. 1 spot locked up heading into her final season before she, as Drew did, moves on to play at the collegiate level. No matter which of the remaining 15 girls on the roster get paired up with Parker, they will be challenged with a mentally taxing season.
Greta said the player matched with Parker will have to deal with making the best out of receiving the serve as opponents will look to keep Parker from getting the third touch.
Three seniors in Shae Dahl, Kendall Haylett and Ashley Monette return from last season, and they will be joined by senior Lexi Settle, who did not play last season but was on the team her sophomore year.
Coconino's Lexi Settle leans back to return a ball during beach volleyball practice Friday afternoon at Coconino High School.
Brooke Parker, Dana's sister who played the setter position during the indoor season, leads a freshman class of four. In addition to having indoor experience, Brooke has spent time playing for the RPM Sand club as well as traveling with her sister to tournaments in California.
Settle also has worked with RPM Sand.
"It makes all the difference when you have a kid come in who has played in the sand before because it’s a thinking game and there is a lot of strategy," Greta said. "You are not just winding up and hitting it as hard as you can."
Rejoining the team as juniors are Sam Hampton, Kenzie Palmer, Sophie Sinek and Rain Varney, who missed last season with injury but played her freshman year. Of the three sophomores on the team, Mireya Cabrera is coming back to the team from her freshman year.
With all the talent and experience back with the team, Greta has a lot of work ahead of her in deciding pairs. Sometimes, the better players don't always match up well, whether because their games don't complement each other or chemistry doesn't exist between them.
“That’s what makes it fun, is trying to figure out the two that compete the best together and increase our odds of winning," said Greta, who has been at the helm of the program since its inaugural season.
As the sport grows, so does the competition, so Greta will have to do all she can to make sure the odds favor the Panthers. Competing in D-I, Section Two this season, Coconino finds itself in a league with seven other teams, three of which made last season's state tournament.
A "true" home-court advantage will help the Panthers get through a tough schedule. Of the 11 total regular-season matches, Coconino will be at home for seven of them. In fact, the Panthers close out the season with a pair of home matches against the Flagstaff Eagles and the Sandra Day O'Connor Eagles.
“They feel confident going in because they have been successful, so they have the edge going into a match," Greta said. "If you feel confident, you won’t play scared. The program has been so successful because we’ve had good girls involved and they believe in what we are doing and it is fun.”