By Kevin Wilson: PNT managing editor
For all intents and purposes, the next state volleyball tournament for Michaela Alexander will be her first. She hopes it will end in her first state championship.
“I see every girl going hard,” the senior outside hitter said of this year’s practices at Portales High, “and I think every girl wants state this year.”
Alexander had such a chance when she was added to last year’s state tournament roster, but her only mistake was one she couldn’t have foreseen. She and teammate Megan Kabrick had lunch together before they left with the team for the state tournament, and both came down with food poisoning before pool play began in Albuquerque.
A shorthanded Lady Ram team was also burdened by untimely injuries, and the defending state champions were eliminated in the semifinals. Nobody knows if things would have ended with a state title under other circumstances, but coach Ruth Chavez knows it’s an ending that’s not worth repeating.
“We left some unfinished business last season and we didn’t like it,” Chavez said. “We didn’t like it, we didn’t want to feel that way again.”
If she and her coaching staff needed a reminder, they found it on July 1, when Chavez said she arrived at the gym for optional summer workouts. There were 25 girls waiting at the door, Chavez said, and the attendance had grown until to the point when practices officially started.
“We’re better right now than we were at the end of last season,” Chavez said.
The season begins for Portales Friday at the Wildcat Invitational in Clovis, and they hope it ends at the state tournament, set for Nov. 11-12.
Portales loses four players from last year’s roster — Whitney Miller transferred to Clovis Christian and graduation claimed Stefanie Sharrock, Rachelle Self and Tana Prewett.
However, it brings back a solid offense with returners Morgan Hill and Megan Kabrick, and a solid defense with returners such as Morgan Erf, Rebekah Gonzales and Amanda Terry.
The only returner Chavez has concerns about right now is senior setter Ashleah Richards, who is recovering from tendinitis in the groin. Richards is optimistic she will be back in time for the Wildcat Invitational, which starts Friday in Clovis. In any case, senior Samantha Henderson knows she’ll have to pull extra duty.
“I’ve just got to step my game,” Henderson said. “Coach Chavez is going to help me and the girls are going to help me. I’ll be ready.”
The team echoes sentiments of being ready, and they feel they’re already better than the team that struggled at many points of the season and ended with a 7-15 mark.
“Last year, we were so young and inexperienced,” Chavez said, “and I can see how much (that growing process) helps this year.”
It comes down to familiarity, Alexander reasons.
“I think the biggest difference between this year and last year is we’ve got through all of the little struggles, like who plays where and who does what.”
Now, Alexander said, the mission is to get back to the state tournament fully loaded. She felt revenge might not be the best way to describe it, but admitted that it didn’t feel like fate dealt last year’s squad a great hand.
“It was kind of a freak situation,” Alexander said. “It threw us off.”
They’ll be competing in the three-member District 4-3A, which has outperformed the rest of Class 3A since realignment created five classifications in 2000. Since then, District 4-3A teams have claimed four of 3A’s five titles — three by Portales and Ruidoso last season.
Chavez counts on tough matches from Ruidoso and Lovington during district play, and has a hunch that 2002 champion St. Michael’s will be strong this year.
But, there’s no telling what will happen between now, the state tournament and what happens in between — and what teams will succeed when others perceive them as weak.
“I think teams looked at us (and our record) that way last year,” Chavez said. “We (still) ended up in the final four … with food poisoning.”