While some teenagers spend their summer relaxing and trying to get away from it all, Alexa Smith was bringing home a gold medal.
The Lewis-Palmer senior competed for the United States Junior National volleyball team in the NORCECA Women's U20 Continental Championship in July in Guatemala. The U.S. spent a few days training in Minnesota before heading to Guatemala City, where the team played four matches and claimed the gold.
"It was a really awesome opportunity. It was just really cool representing the USA," Smith said. "I learned a ton. Just to play in that environment, it does make you a better player."
That could be a scary sentiment for the rest of the Class 4A state ranks headed into the 2014 season. Lewis-Palmer is the defending state champion, and Smith is the reigning 4A player of the year after tallying 461 kills, 236 digs and 50 aces as a junior.
The Rangers swept Air Academy in three games to wrap up their first state title since 2002.
"It does really fire us up. Having that state championship kind of puts some pressure on your back," Smith said. "But I think our team performs really well under pressure."
Lewis-Palmer graduated four seniors off a team that won 27 games. Nicole Montgomery returns on the right side, and Elizabeth Reich and Lydia Bartolo were key contributors as freshmen. Mariah Evans will take over at setter.
"One thing that we haven't had in a long time is depth," Rangers coach Susan Odenbaugh said. "We go pretty deep into the roster."
It's one reason why Odenbaugh's squad opened as the No. 1 team in the preseason.
Smith has been sensational since coming into Lewis-Palmer as a freshman, when she notched 545 kills. That number has decreased over the past three years, but Odenbaugh said what makes Smith so dangerous is that the other parts of her game keep improving. She noted that Smith had the second-highest passing percentage of anyone in the international tournament.
Smith has already committed to play at Purdue University next fall.
"It was just the atmosphere," she said. "I really enjoyed the coaches and players. It just felt right — I could see myself playing on that court."
First there is the matter of this season though. Cheyenne Mountain and Air Academy each won 23 games a year ago and are in the Pikes Peak League with Lewis-Palmer.
Pueblo West, Ponderosa and Elizabeth are among the other 4A contenders.
"I think you're only going to improve by playing really challenging teams," Odenbaugh said. "When we play in our league, that league championship means a lot to everybody. I think that prepares you for that level of competition you're going to see at state."
Class 4A volleyball
Defending champion: Lewis-Palmer
Runner-up: Air Academy
Returning All-State players: Matti Dabovich, Sr., Pueblo West (2nd team); Mika Dickson, Jr., Cheyenne Mountain (1st); Jessica Jackson, Sr., Thomas Jefferson (1st); Celeste James, Jr., Thomas Jefferson (1st); Ashley Pagan, Jr., Air Academy (2nd); Becca Page, Sr., Ponderosa (1st); Jordan Pingel, Sr., Air Academy (1st); Jenna Price, Sr., Cheyenne Mountain (2nd); Allegra Shippy, Sr., Pueblo West (2nd); Alexa Smith, Sr., Lewis-Palmer (1st); Allison Smith, Jr., Ponderosa (2nd).
Regular Season begins: Aug. 21
Playoffs begin: Regionals completed by Nov. 1
Championship: Nov. 7-8 at Denver Coliseum