Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Monticello and St. Joseph High Catholic High School play in the 1A volleyball state championship finals at the UCCU Events Center at Utah Valley University in Orem on Saturday, Oct. 27, 2012.
It’s going to be fun to watch. There’s not just one powerhouse coming in and walking over everyone. We’re excited. —Panguitch coach Cherri Frandsen

Every team wants to believe it has a shot at a state championship.

It’s the reason they get up early, stay late and work so hard for months at a time.

The reality is that only one team can hoist that trophy at the end of each season. But that doesn’t meant the battle for the top spot can’t be a thriller, and that’s exactly what this year’s 1A state volleyball tournament promises to be.

In fact, the field is deeper than it’s ever been, promising one of the most competitive tournaments in history.

Three of the top five ranked teams are undefeated in region play, while the other two teams come from the deepest region in the classification.

“It’s going to be a dogfight,” said fourth-ranked Panguitch head coach Cherri Frandsen. “It’s going to be fun to watch. There’s not just one powerhouse coming in and walking over everyone. We’re excited.” St. Joseph’s returns all of last year’s second place squad, and because of that, started the season ranked No. 1. The Jayhawk are 25-3 heading into the tournament, with all of their losses to schools from larger classifications, but they’re not approaching the playoffs like a favorite.

“It’s just like every other year,” said head coach Ray Franklin. “You work all season trying to get yourself in a good position so you can make it to that championship game.”

Defending 1A state champion — for the last two years — is third-ranked Monticello. The Buckaroos repeated as champions, despite losing a good number of varsity starters, and that’s the situation this year’s squad is in, as well.

“This is a pretty talented group of kids,” said Monticello head coach Tony Esplin. “If we have a weakness, it’s that we’re young.”

The Buckaroos lost one of their starting setters to a concussion earlier in the season, which forced them to change their offense to a 5-1, where they rely on a single setter.

“She was just barely cleared (to play),” Esplin said. “So I’m not sure how much she’ll get to play.”

The team will rely on the leadership of middle Ashley Dwart and junior outside Shania DeNanda. One advantage to being young is that they may not have some of the preconceived notions about storied programs that veterans may have to overcome.

“They don’t know any different,” Esplin said. “We’ve been very competitive with every big school we played. We expect to be pretty solid, and we think we have as good a chance as anybody.”

The Buckaroos are 20-5 heading into the tournament, where they open Wednesday at 3:30 with Tabiona or Dugway. If they manage to win, they will face fifth-ranked Piute. The T-birds earned Region 20’s No. 2 seed.

St. Joseph returns all of last year’s second-place squad, so expectations are high.

“We’ve had a pretty good season,” Franklin said. “Every year you get there, and think you’re pretty good playing your game, and then everybody else comes in with their A-plus game. You’ve just got to play.”

The Jayhawks are led by senior outside hitters Britt Sederholm and Jessie Bischoff, as well as middle hitter Audra Thurston and libero Mady White.

“All of these girls have gotten more mature, and they’ve been working hard,” Franklin said. “They’ve still got that taste in their mouths from that loss to Monticello last year. They’re wanting to come back and redeem themselves.”

Because four of the six have been starters for the Jayhawks since their freshman year, they feel a kind of urgency that hasn’t existed in past seasons.

“They feel they have the talent to win,” Franklin said. “They feel like there are no more one mores. This is it and we have to push and get it done.”

Like the other coaches, he sees the field as extremely competitive.

Rich is the program that dominated the tournament for many years and the program that most coaches credit with raising the expectations for the state’s smallest schools.

The Rebels are always ranked in the top five, usually one or two, and this year is no exception. Head coach Cindy Stuart finds a way to bring the best out of her players, and the Rebels head into this tournament 15-9 with a perfect 8-0 region record.

The Rebels are led by Cami Lamborn, Regan Lloyd and Ellen Peart.

“St. Joe’s is very talented, we know what they have” Esplin said. “Panguitch and Piute — either one is tough. And Rich, year in and year, out, they’re always tough. Knowing everything Cindy (Stuart’s) done in the past, well, that’s all you need to know.”

Panguitch is led by senior Macey Stephenson, libero, junior middle Dari Frandsen, sophomore outside Chesney Campbell, sophomore middle Taylor Bennett and sophomore outside hitter Whittni Orton.

The Bobcats are unique in that much of the volleyball team just helped the school’s cross-country team win its third straight title. Coach Frandsen said she and the cross-country coach make it possible for the girls to participate in both sports. Orton won the 1A individual state title.

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Frandsen said part of the reason she encourages her players, not all of whom love running, to participate is that it helps them understand how every contribution helps a team.

“It helps them understand that, ‘Even if I don’t play all the way around, my job is important,’ ” Frandsen said. "It’s important to the team because that’s what we need."

The 1A state volleyball tournament begins Wednesday afternoon with the championship match scheduled for 4 p.m. Thursday at Utah Valley University's UCCU Center.

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