MORGAN -- The most exciting week in high school volleyball begins on Wednesday, when 48 teams from across the state descend on Utah Valley University in hopes of capturing one of three state championships.
First up is the 1-A tournament on Wednesday and Thursday, followed by the 2-A and 3-A tournaments on Friday and Saturday. In something of a departure from past years, the three tournaments will be spread out over four days instead of three. While the change appears subtle, one noticeable benefit is that there will be no consolation-bracket games played in UVU's Activities Center. All games will occur on the four courts of the UCCU Center.
While the 2-A and 3-A tournaments appear to be wide open, St. Joseph is the clear favorite to take the 1-A title.
In the last three years, the Jayhawks have finished in fourth, third and second place -- in that order. Led by senior Britt Sederholm - one of the best volleyball players to ever suit up for St. Joseph -- the Jayhawks hope to capture that elusive first state championship.
From the first match of the season -- a three-set win over Layton Christian -- to the last --an absolute beatdown of West Ridge Academy, the Jawhawks and longtime coach Ray Franklin have been relentless in their pursuit of the championship. St. Joseph annihilated the competition during Region 18 play, going a perfect 10-0 and rarely allowing an opponent to reach double digits in any set.
In addition to Sederholm, the Jayhawks will rely on players such as outside hitter Jessie Bischoff, middle blocker Audra Thurston, setters Emily Jackson and Bailey Pacheco, libero Mady White and outside hitter Danielle Shinaut.
St. Joseph starts the tournament with a game against Wayne on Wednesday at 2 p.m. Assuming they get past the Badgers, the Jayhawks' first real test will likely come on Thursday morning against traditional power Panguitch.
Defending 1-A champ Monticello -- the team that knocked St. Joseph out of the tournament in each of the last two seasons -- and 16-time state champion Rich are both in the opposite bracket and wouldn't meet the Jayhawks until Thursday afternoon's championship match.
In the 2-A tournament, Layton Christian and new coach Tom Hubbard hope to restore the magic that led the Eagles to the 2-A title in 2009. But it won't be easy.
The Eagles -- the third-place team out of Region 14 -- start off against a tough Emery team and with a win, would almost certainly play South Summit in the quarterfinals. If they can get through that gauntlet, they could end up in the semifinals with a match against Enterprise, a team that has lost only twice this year.
But perhaps that's looking a little too far down the road. First they need to get past Emery on Friday at 3:30 p.m.
Leading the charge for LCA is super sophomore Felicia Marshall and older sister Vanessa Marshall. Setter Brianne Nichols and opposite side hitter Jordan Czenkus will also play key roles for the Eagles.
The Morgan Trojans, with 15 state titles of their own, would love to add another trophy to the case, but may have the toughest path of any other 3-A team.
The Trojans start off on Friday with a 9 a.m. match against Dixie -- undoubtedly the best fourth-place team in the tournament.
In fact the Flyers are probably better than many second- and third- seeded teams. If the Trojans manage a win there, a likely battle with longtime nemesis Carbon would be next.
Morgan almost always makes it to Day 2 on the winner's side of the bracket. If they can do that again this year, the most likely scenario is a semifinal match against defending state champion Desert Hills, regarded by many as the top team in 3-A.
"I think we're probably going to have the hardest road," senior setter Kristi Rhead said. "But I'm excited about that because it makes the victory even sweeter when you get there. I love playing good teams."
The Region 10 champion Trojans have had their ups and downs this year, but it's been mostly positive. As usual, they went undefeated in region play, but had a tendency at times to back off when they had teams on the ropes. Morgan coach Liz Wiscombe hopes to see their killer instinct come out -- and stay out -- during the tournament.
"We've got to do a better job of staying after it," Wiscombe said. "When you get down to state, that third game, you just can't play it half-heartedly or casually. You've got to go after them."
In addition to Rhead, players who are expected to come up big for Morgan include middle blocker McKenzie Schenk, libero Shaylie Duncan, opposite side hitter Jessica Carter, and an army of extremely talented sophomores, such as Jaiden Farr, Jorry Randall, Kennedy Wortman and Aubrey Saunders. And there's more, should the Trojans need additional help.
Skill-wise, there may not be a better team at the tourney than Morgan.
"I feel like we're really talented," Rhead said. "And we've got a lot of height this year and that helps, too. But more important than talent is us coming together and that's what's going to make the difference at the tournament."
"We've got as good a chance as anybody," Wiscombe said. "I believe in my kids. When they play well and they play hard, it's going to take a really, really good team to beat us. If we play that way, I've got my money on Morgan. But if we don't and we play casually, who knows how it could go."
Also in the 3-A tournament are the Bear River Bears, the second place team out of Region 11.
If the Bears make it to Saturday on the winner's side of the bracket, it would almost certainly mean that they pulled off a major upset against likely opponent Desert Hills in the second round. A tall order indeed.
The Bears, led by Alyssa Park, Fallon Peterson, Rachel Litchford and setter Justyn Rose, get one of the early starts on Friday to begin the tournament -- a 9 a.m. match against Payson.