Much like the rest of the state, Tony Oldani was unsure of what to make of his team.
All of the elements were there for a state-contending boys volleyball team – power, the willingness to dive for every ball, chemistry (and, did we mention power) – as Brophy College Prep (Phoenix)
entered the Arizona Division I state tournament.
Yet, there was some hesitation in putting the Broncos at the top of the contender list. The only thing the Broncos were lacking, really, at no fault of their own, was a strong resume'.
Brophy's schedule was like a soft underbelly of an alligator. If exposed, the weakness was there for the taking.
"We played such a bad schedule we couldn't get a feel for who we were," Oldani said. "We had no competition. We had 10 (opponents) that finished at 40 (or higher) in the power points. We were 10-1 and 23rd in power points.
"I was like ‘Hopefully we catch up.' "
There is no denying that now as the sixth-seeded Broncos enter Thursday's state semifinals playing better than ever after discarding No. 14 Desert Vista (Phoenix) in three games Tuesday.
"They have power all over the place," Desert Vista coach Ryan Tolman said. "Most teams have two or three guys who can really swing it, but they have four or five."
The Broncos (30-7) face No. 10 Highland (Gilbert), while in the other semifinal No. 1 Hamilton (Chandler) faces No. 5 Gilbert. Both matches are at Gilbert with the Brophy-Highland match playing first at 5:30 p.m.
The state title game is at 7 p.m. Saturday at Gilbert.
The Broncos have reached a new level in recent weeks, as the rotation changed with the return of senior middle blocker Ryan Dowd from injury and the insertion of junior middle blocker Adam Lincoln into the lineup.
"We struggled with our offense for a couple of weeks," Oldani said. "The last week and a half we got some people back and started to click. We are reaping the benefits of playing at that level."
Senior outside hitter Nick Benson, a New York University recruit, has a thunderous swing, Dowd is a strong presence, while Lincoln has flourished since recently making the starting lineup. The tandem gives the Broncos teeth to its net defense, and freshman Ryan Benson packs a wallop from his left-handed swing.
"We've really started playing our best volleyball recently," the elder Benson said. "Dowd came back and some other guys stepped up."
The final four is a good mix of tradition – Highland (five), Brophy (one) and Gilbert (one) combined for seven state title appearances since 2004 – and a program that has been close in the past in Hamilton.
The new format – one division, 24-team state tournament compared to two divisions with 16-team fields – has led to eight quality programs making the quarterfinals before dwindling down to the remaining four.
"If any of those eight teams (remaining) won state no one would be surprised," Oldani said. "Those are eight very good teams. Anyone one of us could win state."
Brophy, which has won three titles previously, with the last coming in 2006, is clearly in that mix now that it is being tested by the best instead of the weak power point schedule.
"The out-of-state tournaments we played and the last few matches were huge for us," Oldani said. "It is clear these guys want to be challenged and there is no getting away from that now."
Benson, a four-year starter who hits like Thor, won't be satisfied with anything less after some struggles in recent years.
"This is my last year and we never made it past the quarterfinals," he said. "I want to go out with a bang." Jason P. Skoda, a former Arizona Republic and current Ahwatukee Foothills News staff writer, is a 15-year sports writing veteran. Contact him at email@example.com or 480-272-2449.