DENVER — Thomas Jefferson's volleyball team knows it's underrated. But the players are also fearless, and that makes for a lethal combination for foes in the state tournament.
Second-year Thomas Jefferson head coach Erik Rhee said they're an overlooked team, and no one is really expecting the Spartans to come out and win.
But Class 4A's No. 9-seeded Spartans pulled an upset in the first match of Class 4A pool play in the 2016 state volleyball tournament on Friday at the Denver Coliseum, defeating No. 4-seeded Montrose in four sets (26-24, 17-25, 25-21, 25-16).
As the only Denver Prep League school in the tournament, the Spartans are not only an overlooked team, but the squad also represents an overlooked volleyball conference: a DPS team has never made it to the state championship game before.
But the Spartans boast versatility that makes this team a sleeper, even with the nation's No. 4-ranked team, Lewis-Palmer — the "Goliath of Colorado volleyball," in the words of Rhee — also vying for a state title.
"We’re the DPS team, but don’t underestimate us," senior middle blocker Annie McAninch said. "We’ll knock your socks off, for sure."
The Spartans, 14-3 in the regular season, came out aggressive in pool play and adapted early on to Montrose's tough outside hitters, switching senior outside hitter Jaden Sandoval to the right side. The switch neutralized the outsides and really changed the momentum of the match.
"We have so many diverse players on our team that can switch from position to position," setter Gracey Jarecke said.
Alongside sister sophomore outside hitter Siale Sandoval, the two have been forces on the net to reckon with all season.
Throw in McAninch and Jarecke, who is typically a libero for her club team, and the Spartans have a tough offense to beat.
"McAninch's hitting efficiency in the Montrose game must have been close to .700 — she was on fire today!" Rhee said.
He added: "We knew Montrose was going to be tough. We got to an early lead at the end of the match, 24-19, and they battled back. But we just kept calm and did what we needed to and squeaked out that win."
Jarecke, a sophomore, hasn't set in three years and has been running the offense for Thomas Jefferson.
"I told her I needed her to set this year, and she’s done an absolutely fantastic job," Rhee said. "She has great hands, she's very athletic and just so even-tempered. Good or bad, you can’t tell the difference because she’s always smiling and is so positive. Hitters tend to have fragile egos, so whenever they’re down a bit she's always out there pumping them up, and she’s really been a key for us."
Jarecke and McAninch both know the rep DPS volleyball teams get, and they're thrilled to just be able to be one of the 12 teams playing at the highest level in the state.
"My freshman year we came here, and it’s so surreal and cool to see all the teams playing," McAninch said. "The energy is amazing and representing DPS is huge because usually DPS gets the lower end of the stick. It’s a pretty good accomplishment."
Jarecke added: "I’m very proud that our team could come and represent DPS because we do have an underrated rep. This is my first time at the state tournament, and it was so cool walking in for the first time. We’re mentally preparing to come out and give these teams a good run for their money."
Thomas Jefferson takes on No. 5-seeded Pueblo West in pool play on Saturday at 8 a.m. at the Denver Coliseum.
- Class 4A's No. 11-seeded Niwot swept No. 2-seeded Eagle Valley in pool play, 25-23, 25-14, 25-19. No. 7-seeded Holy Family also took down Eagle Valley, 25-17, 25-19, 21-25, 25-16.
- Defending Class 4A state champion Cheyenne Mountain (No. 3) swept No. 10-seeded Silver Creek, 25-13, 26-24, 26-24.
- Class 5A's No. 4-seeded Chatfield came back from a 2-0 deficit against No. 5-seeded Chaparral to push five sets. The Chargers won the fifth set, 15-13, and advanced to the semifinal round on Saturday.
- Lewis-Palmer, MaxPreps' No. 4-ranked team in the country, advanced to the Class 4A semifinal round with wins against Windsor (No. 12) and Berthoud (No. 8).
- Fossil Ridge, Class 5A's No. 1 seed, advanced to the semifinals with sweeps of Highlands Ranch (No. 12) and Coronado (No. 8). The Sabercats will play Chatfield on Saturday.