During the 2019 volleyball season, Sterling had no reason to feel any pressure on its shoulders. It wasn't the Class 3A defending champion and despite being undefeated during the regular season, wasn't the team that everyone felt they needed to beat to win a state title.
That's a big reason why it was the Tigers celebrating and hoisting the championship trophy when all was said and done. They have hopes of of repeating that task, but the reality is they won't be able to fly under anyone's radar from here on out.
"Last year, the pressure wasn't on us," coach Lisa Schumacher said. "We didn't have any pressure and we talked about that all the time. We were undefeated and hadn't dropped a set heading into a match with Eaton and someone would ask what happens if we drop a set? So what? What happens if we lose to Eaton? Doesn't matter."
The Tigers dropped a set, but there was no dropping a match that day or any day through the course of the year.
Sterling proved to be a deep overall team through the state tournament. They were led defensively by then-senior Jade Feather who led the team with 587 digs. The team's only other senior, Paige Pratt, contributed on the defensive effort and added solid service numbers to the Tigers overall statline.
With those two gone, the attention now turns to players such as Allie Schumacher, Aubree Long, Valerie Allen and Harley Gareis who will be entering their senior seasons. They'll be flanked by a talented junior class which includes hitters Sydney Henry, Kaylee Johnson and Emerie Rios.
Each player has their own strength on the floor. Coach Schumacher cites serve receiving as one of the team's biggest strengths this year, but defense and hitting will have to play roles if the Tigers want to defend their title.
"It all has to mesh together," Henry said. "We couldn't (hit or pass) without our serve receive or defense."
A shift in mentality is also going to play a key role for the team. As they built momentum last year, it was very clear that the Tigers enjoyed the thrill of the hunt when it came to closing out the season with a championship win.
The tables will be turned when everyone returns to the floor as opponents will be hunting the big cats rather than being hunted by them.
"It's different because last year we seemed liked the underdogs," Allie Schumacher said. "We had to fight our way through and now we're considered to be on top. The biggest thing is we have to not get in over our heads and keep that underdog mentality."
Hanging on to that mentality can play a key role in Sterling battling to stay at or close to the top of the 3A volleyball world for a few years. The majority of the players return to the team and they've now seen what it takes to survive the grind of the regular season, regionals and an intense state atmosphere at the Denver Coliseum.
"We try to spend a lot of time in our own gym preparing," Coach Schumacher said. "We know what it takes to play in our league and we know what it takes to compete against the other teams in our state."
The Tigers showed they could compete and win last year. This year, they'll have to do the same thing, only this time it will be every team in the state hunting for them.