A roster featuring eight seniors gave Payson High volleyball fans a reason for optimism this season.
And the Longhorns provided them plenty to cheer about, going 27-13-8 overall and qualifying for the Division III state tournament. Unfortunately for them, they entered as the No. 14 seed and wound up opening with No. 3 Flagstaff, which proved to be the best team in the state. The Eagles went on to beat them 3-0 and also won 3-0 in the second two rounds before pulling out a 3-2 victory in the championship match.
Leading the way this season were seniors Emmee Ashby, Kaylee Byers, Mckenzie Creighton, Shealea Garza, Jade Holland, Taylor Randall, Selena Shill and Harley Turney.
Ashby, a powerful 6-foot middle hitter who’ll continue her career at Simmons College in Massachusetts, played at Payson through her sophomore year before transferring to Queen Creek for her junior year. She returned to the team this year and made her presence felt all season.
Ashby, a captain along with Creighton and Garza, led Payson with 314 kills, 50 blocks, including 27 solo blocks. She finished first among middle hitters in the division with a .310 hitting efficiency.
“It was the best any middle hitter has ever done for me, and the second best anyone has ever done for me,” said head coach Arnold Stonebrink. “Outside hitter Tori Wilbanks hit .327 in 2006. She had a tremendous year and was a welcome returnee.”
Ashby teamed with 5-foot-9-inch Cori Barnett, the team’s only junior, to form what Stonebrink called “the best middle tandem I’ve ever had.”
The coach said Barnett’s presence was a key reason the Longhorns played as well as they did. She was
second on the team with 41 total blocks and led the Horns with 29 block assists.
“Cori Barnett was, to me, the biggest and most pleasant surprise of the season,” the coach said. “She had a pretty good year at outside hitter last year on JV, and then switched to a totally new position, middle hitter, and had a fantastic year there on varsity.
“I remember thinking, it would be nice if she could hit .150. Instead, she hit .238; second best on the team among starting hitters, and third best in the division among middle hitters. I couldn’t have been more pleased with her.”
At setter, Creighton was a key to the offense, finishing fifth in the state in assists per set.
“Mckenzie was the workhorse of the team; she played in more than 99 percent of the team’s games this year,” Stonebrink said. “Mckenzie had great hands and great accuracy. And especially impressive was her tipping and pushes. She hit .306, which is the best any setter has ever hit for me, and would be sixth in the state if she had had enough attempts.” She was also second on the team in serving efficiency and aces, with 56.
Byers was second in the amount of action she was involved in, playing in about 85 percent of the games. She led the team in digs and was second in serve-receive efficiency. “Kaylee was the glue and heart of the back row, and the comic relief and energizer of the whole team,” Stonebrink said.
Statistics don’t tell the story of how important Garza was to the Longhorns.
“Shealea Garza was perhaps the player that showed the most consistent improvement throughout the season,” Stonebrink said. “She worked hard to improve her passing, and was a terrific captain; very positive, and getting along with everyone on this team of competitive, type A and strong personalities.”
The roster also featured four sophomores in Klara Sorensen, Kelsee Stonebrink, Tessa Hintze and Sara Novack.
Sorensen led the Horns in serve-receive efficiency. “She has tremendous form; reminds me a lot of my stud passers from last year, Megan and Kaitlyn Wessel,” the coach said. “Klara worked herself onto a varsity starting spot later in the season; she spent most of her playing time on JV as the top JV outside hitter and passer.”
Kelsee Stonebrink, the coach’s daughter, led the team in serve efficiency, aces (74) and service-winner efficiency (57 percent). She also was third in the state in aces per set.
“Kelsee spent most of her play as JV setter, but we used up her allotment of playing games she could play having her serve against the tough teams, and also have her do some passing,” her father said.
The presence of Ashby and Barnett blocked Hintze’s playing time at middle hitter. But she performed well when called on.
“Tessa hit a fantastic .301 in limited action at middle hitter,” the coach said. “She would have seen more action had she not been playing the same position as Emmee and Cori. But she gave us a portent of things to come.”
The coach said the youngsters gave fans of the program reason for optimism of what’s to come.
“Our three JV call ups — Klara, Kelsee and Tessa — did a terrific job on varsity this year,” Stonebrink said. “Tessa hit a terrific efficiency, Klara was the varsity’s No. 1 serve-receiver, and Kelsee was the No. 1 server.”
He didn’t include Novack in that statement because she didn’t see action in the state tournament. But the coach said she should “see more action the next two years.”
Losing eight seniors and returning just one junior means there’ll be a lot of questions that need to be answered next season.
“It will be a complete overhaul,” Stonebrink said. “Next year’s juniors, which will make up a huge part of the team, was a group I coached for Club Payson when they were eighth-graders.
“They are in a similar boat — they have a lot of talent. If they overcome drama, the sky is the limit for them. If they don’t overcome the drama, they will fall short of their potential, and of their glory.”