Despite the fact that the Stanwood volleyball team is making its first trip to the state tournament since 2005, Spartans players could be excused if they complained a little.
Not only do the Spartans get a tough Auburn Mountainview team in the first round but they also get an 8 a.m. start all the way down at Saint Martin’s University in Lacey. That meant early morning practices and extra preparation all this week.
But Stanwood head coach Erik Titus isn’t hearing any of it.
“The kids get worked up, you know, 8 a.m. practice, early draw, we have to drive all the way down there, where we going to eat. It’s four days. It’s four days left out of your athletic experience,” Titus said. “Absolutely enjoy it because there’s no guarantees it’ll come along again. No guarantees we’ll ever do this again. And there are a whole lot of other teams that would gladly change with you; would love to be in your spot.”
After a strong regular season, Stanwood won the Wesco 3A North title and went into the district tournament as a favorite. But the Spartans still needed to win at least two games to make it to state.
“We set a goal early in the season to get to postseason play,” Titus said. “Now at districts we reset the goal and that was to win two on Tuesday. That was our entire preach.”
After dispatching Ferndale in the straight sets, Stanwood got an angry Oak Harbor team in the semifinals. The Spartans not only swept the Wildcats at home but also did it in Oak Harbor and Titus said he could tell Oak Harbor wanted revenge in a bad way. But Stanwood played strong mentally and had fewer unforced errors, according to Titus, to beat Oak Harbor 3-1 and punch its ticket back to the state tournament.
“The girls were just excited,” Titus said. “There were tears out of a lot of people: players, coaches, fans, everybody.”
Titus pointed to a number of early season tests that helped strengthen the Spartans, including five-set wins over Meadowdale and Arlington and even losses to 4A powers like Snohomish and Lake Stevens. It also gave a wide range of players experience, helping increase intensity and the level of play at practices.
“It’s invaluable for the whole squad as whole because it gets all the kids in there to play and it keeps their motivation for practices,” Titus said.
The Spartans have a large contingent of juniors, but seniors Marissa Hansen, Katilyn Noonchester and Joeli Funderburke have played a large leadership role. Also exchange student Natalie Sulantay, who is from Chile, has been a welcome surprise for Titus and added depth at outside hitter for Stanwood. Overall Titus said this has been one of his most enjoyable groups to coach.
“It’s evident in how very much they enjoy playing with each other,” Titus said. “I say that volleyball is the truest team sport. You can only hit the ball once. You have to rely on other kids to do their jobs and these kids finish each others’ plays.”
When Titus arrived at Stanwood 19 years ago the Spartans were coming off the only time they’d ever placed at state. This year Titus said he’s preaching to his team to play on Day 2.
“Since I’ve been here we haven’t played on Day 2 of state so our goal is to play on Saturday,” Titus said. “You’ve got to win one of two so, obviously, if you take care of business in that first one then it makes the rest of that day easier.”
It’s been a revitalizing season for many Stanwood sports programs, including the football team and girls soccer team, which nearly qualified for state also. But as Titus pointed out nobody at Stanwood except the volleyball team is still practicing.
“There’s nobody left practicing at this high school,” Titus said. “There’s a few swimmers going to state, but we’re the only team left. There’s no football, no cross country, no soccer. There’s a lot of kids (at Stanwood) who would love to have their seasons continue.”