It all comes down to a big bulls eye. Where will that glaring target land as this year's high school volleyball season gets underway?
Two of the state's top 5A prospective target hosts will, as usual, hail from Region 4. Lone Peak lays claim to three of the last five state championship banners and a position in five straight state tourney finals. Pleasant Grove has met the Knights there three times and taken home a single top trophy of its own in the same five-year span.
So, drum roll please, who is this year's class 5A favorite before the season even begins?
And the envelope says Pleasant Grove as voted on by Region 4 foes.
In spite of the fact that the Vikings are breaking in new head coach Jamie Schapper and one of their top hitters, junior Danika Mendivil, is coming off of an ACL tear and subsequent surgery last season, Pleasant Grove has garnered the top spot in the minds of a majority of the other coaches. However, the defending state champion Knights are by no means being thought of lightly.
"We have the talent and we have a good team chemistry. I was just excited to see the talent we have here," new Pleasant Grove coach Schapper said, but she doesn't want her team resting on its early season laurels.
"I don't want them to get too big of heads. They need to earn the target on their backs," Schapper added.
Barring injuries the Vikings have a powerful hitting squad that is already turning some heads. Even Lone Peak coach Deanna Meyer concedes that Pleasant Grove has some amazing hitters.
The team will be led by University of Utah signee and outside hitter, senior Brooke McAllister, whom her coach says can "rocket it." She will be joined on the outside by the highly respected Mendivil, who can also slam the ball and place it well. "She's our energy. The knee is not a problem," said Schapper about Mendivil, who showed great improvement during the club season on her repaired knee. Mendivil was injured last season during the preseason at the Rocky Mountain Classic, which is a tournament hosted at Lone Peak and Lehi for many of the top teams in the state.
Intimidating presence and 6-foot-5 junior Jennifer Hamson is frightening at the net and has improved drastically since the beginning of the 2007 season. She won't be playing middle this year but will be suiting up at opposite.
The middle will be manned by junior Melissa Rider and sophomore Kim Dahl, who both played varsity last season. And perhaps the most entertaining and problematic areas will come at setter. Two very high quality setters in Kemi McFarland and American Fork transfer Rae Mulitalo will be battling for the position. Both have great hands, and Schapper maintains that while it will be tough to choose between the two, she's going to try to give the spot to whomever takes on the leadership role the best. It's possible this position could change throughout the year.
Another tough position for the Vikings to deal with is defensive specialist as they will carry five on the team that will vie for the backcourt spots. Katie Allred is a senior leader in that position, and she will be joined in the fight by junior Whitney Ashton, sophomores McKell Hymas and Heidi Lloyd and freshman McKell Stahlie. The squad will be rounded out by Annelies Jenkins and Jessica Wahlgren as they'll put up to 14 different players in at the varsity level.
One of Schapper's favorite things about the team other than the talent and chemistry is that, "we can compete with each other." The team is so strong all the way through that it will have great battles in practice.
Meanwhile Lone Peak's Meyer can say the same about her 15-player squad that returns five players who earned plenty of varsity minutes last season. All are seniors this year, and setter Heather Hanneman notes that the entire group is looking forward to this "being our year."
The five were happy to play and earn the state title last season, but they have no desire to turn it over to someone else at the end of their senior season. Hanneman, Anna Burgess, Aubrey Moena, Ashton Grey and Taylor Day all plan to work hard, pull together their great team leadership skills and bring home another title.
"These girls provide good leadership, and they really work together well. This is the strongest group of 15 all the way down the line that I've ever had here," said Meyer, and that's quite a statement from a coach that has brought home the championship in three of the last five seasons.
While Meyer does note that the Knights are a "team" and it's only as a "team" that they can bring home another title, she also admits that each individual player has tremendous talent and work ethic.
Hanneman, who was most often in the back court as defensive specialist last season, will happily be plying the trade she's been focusing on for her entire volleyball life as she takes over as setter for Lacey Laycock.
The Knights will continue in their strong tradition of setters as Hanneman moves into her new role on the team, with Meyer noting that she has incredible hands and is possibly the best setter in the state at any level.
"She's a real team player. She played on the back row last year and never complained. She got to set occasionally, but realized she's a part of something bigger and bought into the holistic approach to this program," Meyer said about her team's quarterback.
She'll be joined by one of the state's best liberos in the back row. Burgess is a girl Meyer terms the best defensive player in the state.
"She's a real leader in the back court. She's passionate about defense," Meyer noted.
Moena will return at outside hitter, where she provided strong skills last year, and she'll be joined by Grey and Day, who will ply their skills at both the middle blocker and right side hitter positions.
A move-in from California in solid Ashlan Rogers will provide even more power in the hitting lineup from the outside spot, as will junior Cami Richan and sophomore Marquelle Funk, who Meyer notes, has a great vertical and a natural talent for volleyball.
Sophomore Whitney Johnson, who can also set and puts up a solid block, will be playing the right side, and sophomore move-in McKenzie Langrum, from Idaho, will play both right side and middle blocker.
Junior NarNar Finau will back up Hanneman at setter as well as suiting up on the right side. And juniors Becca McOmber, Jordan Alphan, Chloe Jarema and Coralie Jarema will finish out the squad, which, as usual, is focused on teamwork and a holistic approach to the game.
While those two teams are the overwhelming favorites in this extremely tough region, the other four teams will be battling for only one playoff spot as Region 4 takes it's turn with one fewer post season positions this year.
Both American Fork and Lehi can be seen by other coaches in the region as laying claim to that third position, but only one can win the battle. And third place, at least in the preseason coaches' poll, belongs to the Pioneers.
They will be returning Lindsay Day in the middle, Shelby Lund and Aly White in the back court. Kjersti Secretan on the right side and Miranda Parkinson, who will move from the middle to the outside this season. Mady Greenwood will quarterback the entire group this year.
Parkinson is supposed to supply big power this season, and Katie Ford and 6-foot-5 Elle Brainard will also get plenty of playing time.
"Our defense should be good. We always hold to that expectation. Our back row should be solid, and we have a better block," than last season, said Lehi coach Jamie Ingersoll. While Lehi brings back much of its lineup from last year, the American Fork Cavemen, who came on strong and made a push into the 5A state semifinals last season, lose seven players to graduation, or movement.
Junior Makenzie Moea'i is considered by many in the state to be one of the best volleyball talents around, with potential to become the best outside hitter before she graduates next season. She will be joined by Brooke Miller, who was one of the state's best defensive specialists last season and has now transformed herself into the team's setter after the departure to region rival Pleasant Grove of Mulitalo.
"Miller has got a great attitude. The kid has got the team in mind," said American Fork coach Dannette Moea'i. Sophomore Hayley Sua-Fi'lo, who did get some varsity time last season, including a few starts, will play both middle blocker and outside hitter this season. She'll be joined at both of those positions by Jessica Jardine.
Candice Dawson and Jennifer Orton will also take the court, but none of the positions are completely set as coach Moea'i allows the players to earn their positions all year long.
"We are young and inexperienced, but these are all club players," said Moea'i, who will be fighting throughout the preseason to get her team ready to battle Region 4 rivals for that coveted third place playoff spot.
Spanish Fork and Timpanogos will most likely be battling for the fifth spot, but both teams have some talent and could surprise teams.
"We look so much better than last year. We really should compete. We have many of the same girls with more experience and more confidence," said Spanish Fork coach Diana Troyer.
But joining athletic sophomore Erin Redd, who will play both middle and outside, will be solid freshman MaKyla Theurer, who will play outside and all-around.
Junior Kylie Schofield will play middle and outside, Rachelle Remund will play opposite, and Danee Merrell will be setting for the second straight year.
"We will not be at the bottom of the region. We don't want to do that again," said Troyer.
But Timpanogos doesn't want to be at the bottom of the region either, and first-year coach Brianne Molen, says her goal is to finish in third place.
"Our strength will be to fight, have hard work and the will to win," said Molen, who is happy with the play of her versatile team in practice so far. And the former libero will probably turn some heads this season as she plays her girls all the way around and doesn't plan to field a libero in her lineup.
The team will be led by returning players Arrianne Avery at outside and Jessica Fisher at middle. Susan Sulz will return and will move to setter, a position she's never played before. Ina Pili will also do some setting. Kali Skidmore will return from an injury to play either outside or middle for the squad. Brittany Nuttal is a move-in that will move right into the lineup at the outside position.Whatever happens with American Fork, Lehi, Spanish Fork and Timpanogos, the truth is, they will probably all be looking up toward yet another one-two finish by Lone Peak and Pleasant Grove and yet another battle to get the pair of Region 4 leaders into another head-on competition for the state title whichever team finds itself with a target resting squarely on its back.