Steve Lewis/Durango Herald
The Durango High School gym was a cacophony of sound.
Skin meeting volleyball. Voices shouting commands, echoing off the walls. The squeak of sneakers.
Volleyball’s back in Durango.
After going 5-4 against solid competition the last two weekends, the DHS volleyball team opens the home and Southwestern League schedules at 7 p.m. today against Fruita Monument.
And, despite losing reigning SWL Player of the Year Sloan Lovett and three other experienced seniors, the 2012 Demons have few doubts in their ability to repeat last year’s success. For those who don’t recall, all Durango did last year was go 10-0 in league, repeat as district and regional champs and earn a second consecutive state berth, finishing 23-6.
“We’re just as good or even better. Everyone is spread out so equally. We don’t have a weak spot,” setter Natalie Bulen said.
Losing a player as potent as Lovett, who’s now plying her trade at Division I Sacramento State, never is easy. But the Durango offense should be in good hands behind senior McKenna Franzen. Franzen was second on the team with 214 kills and first with 248 digs a season ago, playing some of her best volleyball down the stretch.
“I would say I don’t feel a whole lot of pressure. It’s more about the team and everybody working together. ... I’m just more excited than anything,” Franzen said.
Joining her on the outside will be a combination of several players looking to make their first big varsity impact, either through increased playing time or as call-ups from last year’s junior varsity. Seniors Hannah Quick and Zoe Cutler and juniors Emily McCue and Jessie Brammer should see time opposite Franzen as part of a DHS attack that Franzen said boasts an uptempo air.
“We just have a lot of speed. That’s what I’ll say is we’re fast,” said Franzen, daughter of Gary and Regina Franzen. “It just allows us to have one-on-one opportunities with the blocks.”
Gone from the middle of the front line is Claire Ochsner, a key cog in Durango’s deep postseason runs the last two seasons. Back to anchor the middle is junior Bella Bernazzani, who saw more than a fair amount of playing time as a sophomore last season and was impressive on multiple occasions for DHS, finishing second behind Ochsner with 31 blocks. Berkeley Davis will make the move from junior varsity to the big squad and likely will factor into the mix at middle hitter as well.
The engine that makes Durango hum, or any team for that matter, is its setter. The Demons bring back a good one in Bulen, who had 919 assists as a junior, and she’s as excited about this offense as any she’s had the chance to set for.
“I trust all my hitters this year, no doubt. I’m not nervous; I’m not scared; I trust all my girls,” said Bulen, daughter of David and Janine Bulen.
Perhaps the biggest changes for Durango come defensively. Libero Kennedy Clark, who had 213 digs last season, returns for her senior season and joins Bulen and Franzen as team captains. But a couple of new faces will fill the defensive specialist role vacated by the graduated Tiffany Morlan. Gaby Razma, a junior who transferred in from the Chicago area, and junior Mikayla Montoya will plug that gap, and Clark said the transition has been seamless.
“We’ve been working very hard to get better defensively because that was one of our weakest spots, so we’re much better at that this year,” said Clark, daughter of Letty and Randy Clark.
Currently, DHS is ranked No. 7 in Class 4A by The Denver Post and No. 8 by coloradopreps.com, both similar to the lofty perches the Demons held most of last season.
Now the question is will the results stack up?
“We’re always thinking about that, and I think we have an amazing chance to (go to state) again this year,” Bulen said.