The senior members of the Lady Longhorn volleyball team are opening their final prep campaign with the determination and confidence that can only be found in a veteran group of seasoned athletes.
"I think it's going to be a good year. We've been playing together since seventh grade and have so much chemistry," Tina Jackson said.
"We have great attitudes and were going to be real good," Rikki Ray said.
For outside hitter Celena DeSchaaf, the strength of the team is its strong hitters and good setters.
Returning letter winner Haylee Huff is also primed and ready for play.
"I think we can be really good if we work," she said.
For middle hitter Britney Owens, the season is a chance to showcase the skills she picked up while playing in the week-long Tourney Sport USA all-star tournament in Hawaii last summer.
"I definitely think I improved there and will be a better player," Owens said.
Other senior members are Retosha Marshall and newcomer Brandi Whomble.
Rookie coach on board
The solid nucleus of seven seniors is the foundation on which new coach Arnold Stonebrink will try to build a team.
Stonebrink was appointed to replace Chris Schwind who resigned after four seasons in the program -- one as a freshman coach and three at the helm of the varsity program.
"I'm going to miss it, but it's his program now," Schwind said.
Stonebrink, a sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade teacher at Pine Elementary School, is probably best known for coaching the Lady Buffalo volleyball team to a fourth-place finish in the Arizona State Small School tournament last fall.
Stonebrink's coaching resume also includes a season as the junior varsity coach in Rigby, Idaho and a season at the helm of a sophomore team in American Fork, Utah.
Although he has no varsity head-coaching experience, Athletic Director Dave Bradley said he's confident Stonebrink is capable of overseeing the program which includes about 45 girls on freshman, junior varsity and varsity teams.
"He'll bring in new ideas and new strengths," Bradley said. "We think he is the one to help the team take another step toward a (region) championship and on to state."
The coach had his first opportunity to assess his players at the Blue Ridge Invitational June 25 and 26 in Pinetop-Lakeside.
After finishing 8-2 and as runner-up in first day pool play, the summer team entered a round robin against all the other teams that had finished second in their pool. In it, they finished 3-5 and were seeded into a double-elimination bracket against the top 15 finishers in the 30-team field
Losses to No. 9-seeded Thatcher and the No. 3-seeded Round Valley Elks didn't dampen the coach's confidence in his team.
"We played well, really well and we didn't have two starters from last year (Owens and Huff)," Stonebrink said.
In the absence of Huff, sophomore Brooke Cannon filled in at setter.
"She did a fantastic job," Stonebrink said.
Cannon's performance was impressive enough to have the coach toying with the idea of going to a two-setter offense so he could have both Huff and Cannon on the floor at the same time.
Other than that modification, the team will retain almost the same offensive and defensive schemes it used last season.
Junior varsity coach Judy Perham and freshman coach Carol Hayes round out the coaching staff.
Stonebrink will have a final chance to evaluate his players and select starters Aug. 27 in a scrimmage against the Blue Ridge Yellow Jackets. Start time is 6:30 p.m. in Wilson Dome.
The season opens Aug. 31 against Glendale Independence.
A highlight of the home season will be the annual 24-team Payson Invitational, Sept. 3 and 4.
Games will be played in both the old gymnasium and Wilson Dome. There is no admission charge for the scrimmage or the invitational.
"We want people to come have a good time and enjoy the games," Bradley said.
This year, the Lady Horns will have to make the trek to Chinle for the regional championships Oct. 25 to 27. If the Lady Horns finish among the top three in the tournament, they will receive a berth to state Oct. 29 and 30 at a site yet to be determined.