The first thing
does when people ask about her hometown is tells them the population. Otis has about 500 people, including merchants.
The next thing the Otis
senior does is point out her school's athletic accomplishments.
She'll mention the deep runs by the football and basketball teams. But when it gets to volleyball, that's when Palser truly beams. Otis has been in the Class 1A championship game the past four seasons — all against Fleming — and has won two of them (2009 and last season; both perfect seasons).
In her first three years of high school, the Bulldogs went a spellbinding 90-1, with the only loss a defeat to Fleming in the 2010 title game. If people don't know about this tiny town in the northeastern portion of the state, it's not because of the volleyball team.
"Otis has been in the state championship game the past four years, and we don't want to be the one to break that tradition," Palser said.
When programs establish themselves as powerhouses, particularly in the small-school ranks, they often have an uncanny way of keeping it going. The Bulldogs are trying to do so this season, even though they have already lost twice (to Caliche and 2A power Resurrection Christian).
This season perhaps represents the tallest task of all for coach Bonnie Wallin-Kuntz, as the Bulldogs must replace three all-state players (Kristen Beargeon, Katie Kuntz and player of the year Jessica Noble) and an honorable mention all-stater (libero Jaci Palser). Wallin-Kuntz's task isn't only to replace that quartet, but do so with an extremely youthful roster.
"I've got three seniors, one junior and one sophomore," Wallin-Kuntz said. "And nine freshmen."
Moving forward all begins with this season's three newly anointed captains. Palser and senior classmate Kelcy Davis
are standout middle blockers and junior outside hitter Haley Patterson
also is one of the classification's best. The only other upperclassman, libero Shiloh Kirby
, doesn't have much varsity experience.
Otherwise, the team is largely constructed from youth, as nine players among the 14-player roster were in junior high last season.
"Junior high is so much different than high school," Palser said. "I think just getting them to transition through that and teaching them what we went through when we were freshmen will teach them a lot. Most of the freshmen aren't very competitive yet, and I see that as a very needy quality to win."
It will help that many of the freshmen had sisters on the varsity team. With Katie Kuntz, daughter of the coach, now graduated, freshman setter Kylee Kuntz
now joins the roster. Jessica Noble has been replaced by sister Mallory Noble
, a middle blocker. There's also freshman Antonya Schaffert
, whose sister, Anthonya, was a standout on the 2010 squad.
"They play all the way around, those little freshmen," Wallin-Kuntz said.
Said Davis: "I don't think it's hard to teach them the tradition part of it, because they know what our record is and they know how to win from junior high. As senior leaders, we have to keep them calm in the games that are really close and teach them to trust our hitters.
"Most importantly, we have to teach them to play to win and not to play not to lose."
Wallin-Kuntz said her squad did a fine job of brushing off the early losses, both of which occurred Saturday in the Northeastern Junior College Tournament in Sterling.
"We should have had that Caliche game," Wallin-Kuntz said. "But Resurrection Christian, they're the real deal. They're probably one of the top four teams in 2A. It was a good loss for us, because our kids came away feeling pretty good about the way we played. It was way better volleyball than what we had played against Caliche."
In an effort to make sure things remain on course, upperclassmen have made certain to maintain the tradition of being a tight-knit group. Sterling represents the closest city-like experience, so the Bulldogs often will travel there as a group on their free time.
For their annual summer tournament in Greeley, players made matching t-shirts to cultivate the bonding experience with the newcomers.
"I feel like we can still win," Davis said. "We have two months to improve. We are really young, but we're definitely as good as the others. Over the weekend, it was tough for us upperclassmen to suffer through those losses after only losing one game in three years, but I think it made us realize how much harder we have to work and that nobody is going to hand it to us."