The Northland Prep Spartans know they are short on experience, but they are also aware of -- and driven by -- the success the program has had over the years.

Having lost seven players to graduation, the Spartans enter the 2017 season with as many brand-new replacements on it's 12-person roster. Moreover, only one of the six upperclassmen return with two years of varsity experience.

"Some of the new girls coming up might not have the experience that our returners have, but they have a good mindset, and they are positive players and are very coachable. They are adding a lot to our program," said head coach Lacey Ebersole, whose past teams have made the postseason every year since she took over the helm in 2014.

Avery Thomas begins her third year with the team as a captain and will be a key part of the front row while playing the right side. Savannah Gaun, the team's libero and other captain, is in charge of leading a back row that is also full of fresh talent.

Ebersole said the captains, in addition to returning seniors such as Annabel Angel and Rebecca Gerety, all recognize that those coming aboard are willing to do what it takes to keep the wins piling up despite 2017 looking like a rebuild season.

“I think our returners are instilling in our younger players that we have an expectation to win here, and I think they trust the younger girls and believe that they can rise to those expectations and play at the level we have had here,” Ebersole said.

Of the five juniors, only Casey Auza played last season, which Northland Prep ended with a 14-5 overall regular-season record and a first-round state playoff appearance. Auza, the team's setter this season, didn't get on the court as part of the offense too much last season while playing behind Madi Becker. The setter, who along with Gaun made the Central Region honorable mention list a year ago, was, however, part of the defense during her sophomore year.

“This year she is really stepping up, taking a leadership role and leading the entire offense. She is doing well. She is connecting well with our hitters," Ebersole said of Auza.

The new pieces to the front row are gelling early, according to the head coach. In fact, Auza and fellow juniors Megan Swinney, Sofie Linskey and Ellie Webb all played on the Spartans softball team in the spring. With Swinney listed as a defensive specialist, some of the offensive production  this season could come from juniors who haven't recorded a kill until opening the season against Page on Tuesday with a five-set victory.

With no freshmen and just one sophomore, Ana Nicol, on the roster, the juniors have a lot to learn in order to carry the team through the season. For Ebersole, working out the kinks and getting her offense to find a good balance is important early in the season.

“I think a lot of it is just working on our consistency and learning to be more level across the board to avoid the really high highs and the really low lows,” Ebersole said, adding that Tuesday's nonconference match against Page was filled with offensive peaks and valleys.

Ebersole said the middle blockers have shown that they will be a force at the net, where juniors such as Holly Clark and Sophia Strube will look to make an impact as well.

The Spartans play their second regular-season match of 2017 Thursday in the Valley against the Bourgade Catholic Golden Eagles looking to notch their first 2A Conference victory. Northland Prep will play its first home match of the season against Basis Flagstaff on Wednesday, Sept. 6.

Mike Hartman can be reached at 556-2255 or at mhartman@azdailysun.com.

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