Printed on: October 31, 2013

Firth aiming for first

Last year's 2A runner-up looks to reallocate that title

By MARLOWE HEREFORD
mhereford@postregister.com

FIRTH -- The Firth High School volleyball team has gained ample attention since going from underdogs to taking the spotlight within the past year.

Surrounded by new bleachers and student-made blue banners at Tuesday's practice in their home gym, the Cougars had an aura of familiarity about them. This was where they were a year ago, making final preparations before beginning state tournament play at Hillcrest High School.

All but two players from that young 2012 Firth team, which took second to Nampa Christian despite no previous postseason experience, are back this fall. While that state title run surprised many -- including themselves -- last year, the returning Cougars expected nothing short of reaching state again.

"Last year, it was kind of a shock to us," said junior outside hitter Bailey Nelson, who was named the 2012 Nuclear Conference Player of the Year. "We're stronger and more consistent. We're such a tight family. The experience of state is really a great experience. This year, we've become more caring about each other."

They also realized just how many eyes were on them upon returning several key pieces from last year's second-place team. Head coach Carla Reeves demonstrated this during a preseason practice by placing targets on the girls' backs, telling them they would have to keep moving so no one could hit those targets.

To say that Firth (25-5) responded would be an understatement. The Cougars not only acknowledged the newfound attention, they embraced it.

"You can't coach heart and they have it," Reeves said. "They don't get shaken. I've watched that mental preparation this year. They've been the underdogs and they've surprised teams when they've come back."

Perhaps the biggest surprise occurred Sept. 15 when the Cougars took fourth at the Skyline Classic. The smallest school in the 18-team tournament, Firth beat 4A and 5A powerhouses Bishop Kelly, Boise and Madison.

"We can dig anyone, we can block anyone," senior middle blocker Kayla Jensen said. "It doesn't matter that they're bigger schools. I don't think we really understood how good we were (until that weekend). It was a good challenge. It was so cool."

The Cougars have since repeated two of their achievements from a year ago -- winning a second consecutive 2A District 6 title and going undefeated in Nuclear Conference play. Reeves, in her seventh year at Firth, credits much of the team's success to its focus.

"Some coaches just want practice to be over with," Reeves said. "I haven't walked out of this gym ever with that feeling. I'll split them into groups and ask them what they want to work on. They know what they need and they're not afraid to ask."

Combined with that focus is the Cougars' motivation to finish what they started a year ago. Members of Firth's 2004 state championship team -- including Reeves' daughter Heidi Hopkins -- visited with the Cougars before last year's state tournament to tell them how they lost to Nampa Christian in the first round and eventually beat them for the program's second state title after playing 13 hours through the loser's bracket.

The 2013 Cougars haven't forgotten those words, and they enter Friday's opening match against Malad with the intention of bringing home a third blue trophy.

"I want to graduate and say I was a state champion," Jensen said. "(I want) to tell my kids I was a state champion."

Moreover, the seniors want to provide a fitting end for a class that has been teammates since fifth grade.

"We're like sisters," senior setter Jordyn Park said. "I want to see us have fun, give it our all regardless of what position we're in. This is my last time playing. I want to walk off that court knowing I did my all."