The self-inflicted wounds came in swarms, the intensity of the tournament setting never ceased.
Admittedly, even as the Sunset volleyball team aimed for a Class 6A state championship a year ago, the 6A state tourney stage might have been too big. All the outside hype had the Apollos in over their heads as Summit shocked them and swept them in the quarterfinals and Central Catholic kicked them out of the consolation bracket.
It was a strange 36 hours or so, to say the least. Sunset went from state title contender on Friday morning to back home by midday on Saturday afternoon. Two-and-out never felt so swift. The expectations might have been too much, too soon, in hindsight.
For all of Sunset's dexterity, only three of the Apollos had played in the state tourney setting prior. It was a clamorous vibe in a packed house, competing in front of the biggest crowd most of the Sunset players had ever seen. The experience, for 80 percent of the squad, was foreign. Sunset only had three varsity returners, which is remarkable considering the Apollos won 24 games and captured the fourth seed at state. But as graduating seniors Sophie Summers, Paige Monaghan and Aria DeLaRosa moved on, the incumbent Apollos returning this fall made a sort "never again" pact. Sullen but spurred on, disgruntled but resolute, Sunset is out to right any postseason wrongs and put its name back in the state's good graces.
"Last year we had really high hopes that we didn't necessarily reach, which was disappointing for a lot of us," Sunset senior Krista Santos said. "This year is our redemption year. We want to come back and show what we've got. We were devastated last year. We had such high expectations, our fans had such high expectations. We had so many people coming out to support us. It felt like we disappointed a lot of people and ourselves. But now we have such a fire and determination to not let that happen again."
"It was on our side of the court, it wasn't the teams we were playing," Sunset junior Sydney Hankel said of the team's state troubles. "They weren't necessarily better than us, we just kind of shut down and were in a funk the whole tournament. Not to blame it on a bad game, but if we were to go back and redo that tournament, we would've been out for blood, 100 percent. Resilience is going to be a big thing for this season, showing people that Sunset is back."
Sunset's decorated history under the direction of head coach Lad Salness speaks for itself. The Apollos are state tournament linchpins who would have handfuls of Metro League championships if it wasn't for Jesuit's presence in the conference. Summers, Monaghan and DeLaRosa were four-year varsity players with multiple years of all-Metro recognition. But the Apollos have several potential stars who patiently waited in the wings over the years and are ready to see more court time and show off their abilities. Relatively unknown players now possess the potential to blossom into stars of their predecessor's ilk. Give Mountainside its rightful praise and gauge Jesuit because of its championship pedigree, but Sunset is a team nobody should overlook, though the Apollos are happy to indulge all the slights.
"Losing our senior class from last year I think everyone thought we'd be underdogs, but we're ready to prove them wrong," Hankel said. "I have really high expectations."
Annually, Sunset puts together powerhouse units outfitted with tall, angular athletes who float above the net, bring the hammer and hit the ball hard. Santos, Hankel, Birdie Zevenbergen, Renee Geib and others all fit that mold. Hankel was a second-team All-Metro all-around selection as was senior libero Ashley Van Gordon, who's a sort of coach on the court and a clear leader on the squad. Santos was a third-team All-Metro blocker. Sunset is upperclassmen-laden too, with a rotation that can expand to 11 players if need be. So far this season, Sunset is 7-3 overall and 3-1 in Metro with a huge test against the league-leading Mavericks at Mountainside on Sept. 26.
"We have a really deep team," Santos said. "We don't have a couple of really strong people and then a bunch of weak players. Everyone is really equal. So, it's a matter of ourselves having chemistry. We've had several girls step up and deliver. We have so many more girls who know what state is going to be like and know what to expect. I'm really confident and excited to see what this season has for us."
"Everyone on this team is a very well-rounded player," Hankel said. "If we run out of subs and someone has to go in the back row, that's no issue. We've always had a deep roster. People who have been on the bench, it's their time to shine now."
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