Taylor Irving

Freshman setter Taylor Irving diggs for a ball during a recent practice.

Four years after winning the National Junior Community College Athletic Association Division II National title, Glendale Community College women’s volleyball head coach Lisa Stuck said her 2018 team is showing early signs similar to that national championship team.

“During our early practices, I see that these girls interact off the court like the 2014 team already, and that is something you can’t teach,” Stuck said. “The X factor is the mental part of learning the game while in 2014, we had smart volleyball kids, and I don’t know how this team will do in pressure-packed moments and who will rise. But this team already shows glimpses of the same things.”

Last season, Stuck endured her worst record since 2011 but continued her streak of making the playoffs every year since taking over the Gauchos program in 1998.

“Last season was really tough because we just didn’t have the numbers we needed to compete and it limited what we could do during the matches,” Stuck said. “Honestly, I was surprised and proud of how well we did because of that.”

Entering last season, the Gauchos started the season by losing two girls to four-year universities, which put them at nine players before injuries slowed down the team’s progression.

“It was tough because we just couldn’t find any rhythm on the season,” Stuck said. “We would get going and then injuries would put us to a halt. The girls kept fighting and actually played very well to get into the playoffs before we just ran out of gas.”

This year, Stuck had one of her better recruiting classes, bringing in eight freshmen to join six returning players to a squad that is ranked No. 18 in the NJCCAA preseason national poll.

“Our strength is going to our depth, something we haven’t had a lot of in the past couple of seasons,” Stuck said. “During the preseason, I may use a lot of different starting combinations to see what works best. I want to play the girls as much as I can to get them playing time while balancing winning.”

Returning players Katie Defer (Glendale Ironwood), Alexa Treguboff and Courtney Laliberte (Peoria Liberty), Talisa Valdez (Avondale Westview) and Jasmin Smith (Phoenix Arcadia) return to lead a team that Stuck said will be strong up front.

“I am looking for an 8-9 player rotation, but if we are deep and skilled enough to make substitutions set by set without compromising the ability to win, I would love to do that,” Stuck said. “You never know how kids are going to play until we get into actual games.”

Defer, Treguboff, Laliberte, Valdez and Smith played 24 games last season as the team finished 15-8 overall and 8-7 in the Arizona Community College Athletic Conference. Defer led the team in assists with 16 and blocks with 61, while Smith led the team in kills with 278. Treguboff had 249 kills and 190 diggs. Laliberte had 237 kills and 46 blocks for the Gauchos.

Incoming freshman Kalsie Schiefelbein, a one-year starter at Liberty, led the Lions to a 12-5 record and the first round of the 5A tournament, losing a five-set match to Ironwood Ridge. Schiefelbein had 177 kills, 53 blocks and 18 aces and Stuck said she is just reaching the potential of her game.

Breanna Allen, who ranked first in 6A in hitting percentage (.418), fourth in kills (408) and third in aces (78), and Chavez who ranked fifth in hitting percentage (.387) and 10th in kills (342) after leading Surprise Valley Vista to the playoffs, before dropping their first-round matchup to Horizon, also join the team.

Alyssa Avitia, who helped lead Goodyear Millennium to the quarterfinals of the 6A, before losing a five-set match to Perry, joins the Gauchos after leading 6A in aces with 88 this past season.

“Defer has the ability to lead this team and she will be key to our front line. She is under the radar and has been getting stronger and stronger,” Stuck said. “Also, Allen is a four-year kid that just needs a little assistance and she is a beast, but Defer is poised to have a breakout season for us and showing the hard work she has put in is really starting to show on the court.”

Stuck added that the team weakness, if it has one, will be experience, which was why she changed this year to a preseason tournament, as opposed to opening the season with conference play as in previous seasons.

The team will play in a tournament in Las Vegas before opening the conference season Aug. 31 against Phoenix College.

“The competition is strong this year and we will have a battle one through 14,” Stuck said. “This is the first time in a long time I have had that type of depth, but you never know going into a season when injury or illness will happen, but knowing we have the talent this year, we will learn how they will play during the early season.”

Stuck said while depth is a strength, she is not sure how the losses of some key players will affect the team, but she is looking for strong play from her incoming players.

“The hardest part is how the girls interact and they have been playing together during the spring and summer, so that is a huge plus for us,” Stuck said. “I think this team is capable of being very strong and if they can figure everything out, this can be a great team.”

Stuck pointed to Mesa (No. 5 NJCCAA), South Mountain (No. 11) and Scottsdale community colleges among the top opponents in the ACCAC this season.

“Scottsdale is going to be good this year and Mesa is putting together a nice team right now,” Stuck said. “I do believe we are top three right now and we can only get better.”

As she enters her 21st season as head coach of the Gauchos, Stuck said she may be nearing the end of her ride.

“I am starting to feel the end, and I am kind of in a scale-back mode right now,” Stuck said. “I love it here at GCC and love the kids, but the gap is starting to get wider between me and the kids and I want to do other things. I am not leaving tomorrow, but I see the light at the end of the tunnel. I just don’t want to end right now because this team looks special.”