COLORADO SPRINGS — The biggest difference in Doherty's gym as the 2013 volleyball season opens? It's not the new championship banner watching over practice. It's all the new faces.
The Spartans graduated seven seniors off of last season's team which went unbeaten en route to winning the Class 5A title. In fact, just four varsity players return in 2013.
"It's been terrifying, actually," said Haleigh Washington, one of those returners. "It's scary! Because last year, you're in this comfort zone, there's a bunch of seniors, there's a bunch of upperclassmen.
"So this year, we're in this new environment. We have younger kids, we have kids that need to learn. We have kids that kind of know what they're doing, but still need to learn. So it's scary, because we don't know what the next step is."
Early-season practice has completely changed from this point last season.
"Last year, we were able to focus on the strategy earlier on in the season," coach Tara Hittle said. "This year, the main focus is on the skill and the technique of the skill. We'll get to strategy a little bit later on."
Hittle has three freshmen on the varsity roster, and moved a number of girls up from last year's lower-level teams.
"There are a lot of unfamiliar faces, a lot of new people," said senior Gabby Simpson.
But Doherty's cupboard isn't bare.
Washington, a Penn State commit, is the reigning Gatorade player of the year in Colorado. (The only other volleyball player to do that in Doherty's history? Hittle, who also led the school to a championship in 2003.)
Simpson, a setter, is bound for Colorado State. Seniors Rachel Staudte, an outside hitter, and Kaylee Bussinger, the libero, also return experience.
"It's a pretty big change," Hittle said. "However, in the returners that we have, we have four good players."
The seniors have each embraced a leadership role.
"You're the leader now, you're the top dog," Bussinger said. "You want to show them how we do things on varsity."
Added Washington: "We try to explain to them things you wouldn't typically picture in a winning team. We don't say, 'You need to hit hard,' and 'You need to pass the ball perfectly.' It's things like, 'You need to be confident in yourself,' 'You need to know that you can do what we teach you,' 'You need to be willing to learn,' or 'You need to be willing to change what you already do.' "
Despite graduation's impact, Doherty opened the season atop CHSAANow.com's 5A volleyball poll on Monday. It's yet another challenge added to an early season full of them.
"It's a lot of pressure and everything to hold up to," Bussinger said, "but, sure, give us that, we'll try to defend it."
"We have a target on our back, definitely," Staudte said.
The Spartans begin the season on Aug. 31 at home against No. 2 Grandview, the team they beat in the 2012 final which graduated just one senior. It makes for a quick test.
"Are we going to go 29-0 (again) this season? Probably not," Hittle said. "Is that the goal? Yeah, we would love to. But I'm not so concerned with how we do at the beginning of the season. I'm more concerned about us learning and growing. I would love to win the last game of the season."