For everyone around and involved with high school sports during the fall seasons, things were different, to say the least.
The same can also be said for Flagstaff volleyball junior star Gracelyn Nez, who didn’t overlook how lucky her team was to play despite the pandemic.
Normally, the War Memorial Gym is rocking when the Eagles play. The students get into it, along with the other fans — many of which are there to watch Nez. This season, though, the crowd was limited to 20% and a substantially smaller student section.
“Honestly, it was really different,” Nez said in a recent phone interview. “So many other teams didn’t have a season, and for us to have a season and compete at state and practice, I thought of it as a gift.”
For the first time really in her high school career, Nez battled injuries in the fall, including an ankle injury that took some time to heal. She eventually looked like her normal, hard-hitting and exciting self near the end of the regular season.
“I was really pushing to get my ankle better because it was a really, really short season,” Nez said. “The unexpected was kinda expected. Two weeks of being off, so I was just like, ‘I want to be on the court,’ because my team was really good this year.”
In fact, her return to her normal self went hand-in-hand with the Eagles’ near upset over the 4A conference's then-No. 1 Notre Dame Prep and Flagstaff’s win over then-No. 4 Seton Catholic on the road just before the state tournament. The Eagles did it again in the playoffs, knocking off third-seeded Deer Valley in the quarterfinals.
The run of upsets against top teams ran out in the semifinals when Flagstaff lost to eventual champion Salpointe Catholic in straight sets.
While it wasn’t the way the team wanted to end it, Nez and company did make it to a third straight semifinals appearance but fell just shy of getting to the state title round for the first time since 2013.
For playing a large and important part of the Flagstaff program’s continued surge this season, Nez is the 2020 Arizona Daily Sun Volleyball Athlete of the Year — winning the honor for the second straight season.
Nez noted a similar sentiment as her head coach Beth Haglin did, saying that, despite the loss to Salpointe, Nez felt the Eagles were easily among the top teams in terms of talent.
“I think we are actually at that level,” Nez said, noting that Flagstaff has lost to the eventual champ in two of the last three state tournaments. “ … We have been right there and so close yet, kinda, so far.”
The Eagles, which went 15-4 overall when counting postseason matches and 10-2 in the Grand Canyon Region, are expected to bring back the bulk or even all of its nine-person junior class from the 2020 season — setting up a senior-laden group that hasn’t missed the semifinals yet.
Nez of course leads that group as the team's No. 1 outside hitter, along with star setter Bridget Bond and consistent middle blocker Berlynn Fowler.
“Most of us are coming back next year, so I am really hoping we can push that last little hump,” Nez said.
Nez finished the 2020 season as a 4A All-Conference first-teamer and made the Grand Canyon All-Region First Team.
Nez led the Eagles with 129 kills for the season while playing just 39 sets. She averaged 3.3 kills per set and totaled 25 aces, the second most on the team. She also was solid at the net with 27 blocks and finished second on the team in digs with 123.
With still a year of high school left, Nez has options, but she did say she wants to try to play college volleyball when her already decorated high school career is done.