The Coconino Panthers beach volleyball program is a microcosm of what's taking place statewide when it comes to the booming sport.
“There is a lot of interest in the sport. I mean, who wouldn’t want to play beach volleyball," said Panthers co-head coach Greta Hannemann, who has been with the program since its start in 2014 when there were just handful of programs in Arizona participating in the sport.
More schools have added the program to their list of sports, and meanwhile, Coconino is adding more players to its roster. As a result of the sport's growth, the AIA has moved some teams around as the competition gets stiffer, with the Panthers dropping into Division II.
The Panthers have a 16-person roster this season, and it's a mix of upcoming talent and experienced juniors and seniors. It's the largest official roster Coconino has had.
Even though 16 seemed a bit much at first, Hannemann and Scott Dendy know how to make the best out of the numbers.
“There are so many with about the same skill level," Hannemann said. "… It’s going to be really tough competition for the girls to be able to earn a spot in a pair.”
Practices, the coaches suspect, will be as challenging as ever.
“We look at the number of kids we can keep, and we hope that the kids at the lower end can push those players at the higher end, creating nice competitive practices, and keep that learning curve still going and just push each other," said Hannemann, who has already sent two players off to play at the college level in Dana Parker and daughter Drew.
Although the team has five seniors, a majority of which are heading into their third year with the team, the Panthers are going to be a team that's young overall as many of the upperclassmen don't have much match experience under their belts. Moreover, Coconino is making up for the loss of nine seniors over the past two years.
It's the same case for many of the players who are returning for a second year, as the team has been able to retain players despite the fact that not all have been used in pairings. It helps that the school has beach courts in its backyard now for a second season.
Third-year seniors such as Sam Hampton, Kenzie Palmer and Sophie Sinek will be looked on to share their experiences with the younger players. As will Rain Varney, who also has been with the team for two years but missed her sophomore season to an injury.
Anna Wiseman joined the team as a senior this spring, coming off a season with the indoor team during which she was key asset.
Meanwhile, Mireya Cabrera, Alianna Figueroa and Taya Fordyce are all returners making up the junior class. Hannemann is also impressed with the five sophomores and three freshman. Sophomores such as Brooke Parker, who played a big role with the team last year, Megan Hicks and Rikenna Curtis are looked on to keep the older players on their toes.
With the weather making it hard to get outdoors over the past month -- and with more foreboding forecasts in the future -- it was hard just to get tryouts going, but that didn't deter the girls.
They even put on old shoes so they can get out and play, helping to keep the school's beach courts as clear as possible to play on. For now, they are working on strategy and basics indoors.
“We’re just trying to get them thinking about the beach strategy as opposed to six-on-six and there’s a lot of strategy that goes into it. That was really productive for them," Hannemann said.
It's not ideal, but they are doing what they can to make sure they can continue to compete in a new division that still includes teams such as Mesquite and Corona del Sol, schools that have been a challenge for Coconino in the past.
Last season, the Panthers went 9-2 in the regular season and made the postseason, continue the trend of not missing the state tournament. A few new teams dropped into Section IV, where the Panthers will reside.
Hannemann, considering what her team looks like this season, thinks the Panthers are right where they should be and the season should be as competitive as ever.
“There are some really good schools that were also dropped into Division II, and I think we are where we need to be, honestly, but I love competing against the powerhouses because we’ve held our own over the years," she said.
The Panthers were set to open the season on Friday, but the snowstorm has put a dent in the schedule already. As of now, the next match would be Wednesday at Boulder Creek.