A bevy of 18 of the state’s finest prep volleyball teams clash today, Sept. 4, and tomorrow in a Payson Invitational that is being heralded as one of the state’s finest regular season tournaments.
Part of the flair of the tournament is that it features schools from most all size classifications, 2A to 5A, against one another in a rare showcase that allows the “small school” athletes to see how they fare against their counterparts from the big city.
For example, 2A Mogollon of Heber Mogollon is aligned in the opening day’s purple pool against 5A Cesar Chavez and 4A Flagstaff Coconino.
That will give the Mustang players an opportunity to prove they are the every bit as good as those from the suburban Phoenix school.
During the course of the regular season, schools of differing size classifications don’t often play one another.
Also contributing to the panache of the invitational is that schools clamor to get invited mostly because it is a well-run and organized two-day shootout.
“Only three new teams are in the tournament; 15 returned,” said coach Arnold Stonebrink. “Which I think is a testament to how well-run the tournament is year in and year out.
“I hear a lot of positive comments from coaches of our tournament teams and also from blogs on volleyball sites.”
The coach attributes the success of the tournament to directors Judy Perham and Penni Stonebrink, his wife.
“Kudos to them,” he said.
Among the most intriguing teams entered is Coconino, a squad that will mostly likely benefit from the closing of Flagstaff Sinagua High School.
Most of the Sinagua students have relocated to Coco, which means the Panther volleyball team will be bolstered by the influx of new student-athletes.
Also adding more promise to Coconino’s season is that former Sinagua coach Angela Vargas was coaxed out of retirement to coach the Panthers.
Stonebrink believes she can be a difference-maker for Coco.
“She won a number of Grand Canyon Region tournaments as Sinagua’s coach,” he said.
While the newly fortified Panther team is somewhat of an unknown, that’s not the case with Florence.
“The team is the No. 2 pick in the state for many volleyball bloggers,” said Stonebrink. “They have it all — height, athleticism, strength in all positions and good coaching.”
Another tournament favorite is our East Region neighbors from Lakeside — the always-tough Blue Ridge Yellow Jackets.
“They will be extremely strong with nine or 10 capable and experienced juniors,” said Stonebrink. “They are picked to vie for the East Region Region crown and go far in the state tournament.”
One of the reasons the Jackets are good year in and year out is the coaching of Tami Ellsworth.
“She has been at the helm for many years and knows how to coach,” said Stonebrink.
While some volleyball pundits argue Tuba City will have a down year because the Warriors graduated almost all of last year’s roster including North Region MVP Dakota Yazzi and coach Evelyn Kilyani retired, Stonebrink is of the opposite opinion.
“The new coach seems quite capable and the Warriors took second place twice in summer tournaments,” he said.
Safford also graduated much of their talent-laden 2009 team but Stonebrink is expecting coach Janelle Ward to bring a very competitive Bulldog team to Payson.
“They will be reloading, not rebuilding,” he said.
Also expected to contend for honors are 2A Joseph City and 4A Mingus.
Stonebrink touts JC as a well-coached, fundamentally sound team and the Marauders as a crew hardened by the experience of qualifying last season for the big school state tournament.
While Stonebrink is lavish in his praise of some of the tournament teams, he reserves some of his plaudits for his Lady Longhorns.
“I think we will be one of the better teams (in the tournament),” he said. “We were able to take second place in our summer tournament and are off to a good start this year.”
He touts his team as one that is versatile, has good depth, is well-balanced and has remarkable team chemistry.
“And the girls seem hungry,” he said.
Last year the Lady Horns won the invitational consolation championship, but the coach is not about to settle for that in this tournament.
“I expect the girls to make the championship bracket,” Stonebrink said.
For the opening day’s play, the tournament teams are assigned to one of three pools — purple, gold and black.
Payson is aligned in the purple pool with Blue Ridge, Mogollon, Winslow, Wickenburg, Cesar Chavez and Coconino.
Payson games in pool play are at 9 a.m., 10:30 a.m., noon, 1 p.m. and 3:30 p.m.
All of the Lady Horns’ games are in Wilson Dome except for the 10:30 game, which will be in old PHS gymnasium.
At the conclusion of pool play, during the evening hours, the tournament will feature cross pool play with teams playing opponents from opposite pools who finished with similar records and final standings.
On Saturday, action shifts to double elimination tournaments with the top three teams from each pool aligned in the championship bracket and the bottom three teams assigned to the consolation bracket.
At the conclusion of the tournament, awards will be given to the winners of both the championship and consolation brackets.
Also, coaches will vote to select an all-tournament team and a most valuable player will be honored.
On both days, the concession stand will be open and souvenir tournament T-shirts will be sold.