DENVER — Replacing a legend is tough.
When longtime Lewis-Palmer volleyball coach Susan Odenbaugh retired after winning her fourth state championship last season, her assistant for those championships, Wade Baxter, stepped in to keep the dynasty alive.
It was a tall order for Baxter — the Rangers lost three Division-I hitters last season, and was coming off an undefeated championship run.
“Really I was just trying to not screw it up,” Baxter said. “It’s not like I installed some grand new scheme of my own. It was really to just keep the legacy going.”
After Saturday night, it’s official — the Lewis-Palmer volleyball legacy was not screwed up.
Fielding a much different squad than the team that won it all in 2016, Lewis-Palmer claimed its fourth Class 4A state championship in five seasons with a dominant title-clinching performance, defeating Valor Christian, 25-22, 25-18, 35-33. It is Lewis-Palmer’s seventh state championship while Valor Christian finishes as the volleyball state runner-up for the first time in school history.
Even though 2017’s title marked the first time since 2001 that Odenbaugh was not sitting on the Rangers’ bench as a head coach in a state championship match, it was business as usual for a Lewis-Palmer program that had a smooth transition to a new regime — at least on the surface.
Behind the scenes, Baxter dealt with injuries, players in new roles, and sky-high expectations, only to still come through with an undefeated state title run.
“We did have some turnover even though we returned a largely veteran team,” Baxter said. “We only have one hitter (middle blocker Kessandra Krutsinger) who is in the same position as last year, and everybody else was kind of coming up from a reserve role.”
One of those was senior Jadie DeLange, who missed all of last season after back surgery only to come back and be inserted onto a team of unproven players.
“I think we wanted to prove people wrong,” DeLange said. “I think we kind of had a big target on our back, and we wanted to prove that we were still the same powerful team as last year.”
In the semifinals, Niwot almost proved Lewis-Palmer wrong.
Niwot shocked the Rangers by winning its first set 25-19, only the sixth time this season that Lewis-Palmer had lost a set.
Determined to embrace the target on their backs, the Rangers wouldn’t lose again.
In the championship against Valor Christian, junior Trinity Jackson set the tone early, notching three of her eight total kills in the Rangers’ first six points, and before long, the rest of the Rangers got in on the act.
Five ranger hitters would turn in five or more kills, and entire front row gave Valor Chrisitan fits, throwing down 12 blocks and neutralizing most of the Eagles’ big hitters.
Not even in a marathon third set, which the Rangers ran all the way to 35 points, did they let up, using its grit to grind out the win and clinch the title.
It’s a hallmark of this championships squad, Baxter said, to stick together.
“Their hard work and their seamless blend of egos,” Baxter said, “made them special. They really were a team all the time.”
The win extended Lewis-Palmer’s nearly unfathomable win streak to 58 matches and counting, and ran the Rangers’ record over the past four seasons to 112-4.
The Rangers’ dominance doesn’t show any sign of ending soon, with many of its key contributors only being juniors, ready to make a run for another title next year.
DeLange said, that behind Baxter, the team can continue to dominate.
“We could not have asked for a better coach,” DeLange said. “He does well at keeping us focused and taking it one point at a time. We wouldn’t be here without him.”