Four years at the 5A level were kind to the Bonneville High School volleyball team.
A runner-up state trophy in 2015 (to conference opponent Idaho Falls), followed by 5A state championships in 2016 and 2017. Back-to-back 5A District 5-6 championships. A combined 136-29 record over the last four seasons, including an undefeated record versus Idaho teams in 2016.
Of the varsity players on last year’s 41-4 team, three graduated. Several of the older players have been competing together since elementary school, and head coach Chantal McMurtrey said they have well-established chemistry, communication and drive.
“I’ve always asked the opinion of these kids,” she said. “They’re very vocal. They always have such a focus. It’s kinda intense to watch. It’s really a good thing to see these kids respond to that. They’re so competitive. There’s no ball they don’t want to get.”
The latest classification cycle that prompted much shuffling across Idaho this school year puts Bonneville back in 4A with several notable differences. The Bees enter 4A as back-to-back 5A state champion while back-to-back 4A state champion Skyview — responsible for Bonneville’s lone Idaho loss in 2017 — moves to 5A. The process of reaching the state tournament has also changed as the new-look 4A District 6 has 1.5 bids instead of two.
“I’m excited to go to 4A and play some new teams,” junior outside hitter, and defending Post Register All-Area Volleyball Player of the Year, Makayla Sorensen said. “Districts I feel like it’s just gonna push us more because it is 1.5 instead of two. We have to have that in the back of our mind.”
“I think it puts a lot of pressure on us to execute,” junior setter Alexis McMurtrey added. “Now with only one-and-a-half seeds, we know we have to get our job done.”
Another change for the Bees this year is the size of the program. The opening of Thunder Ridge led to lower enrollment in both Bonneville and Hillcrest. For the Knights and first-year coach Amanda Wade, that lower enrollment also resulted in several of last year’s athletes going to Thunder Ridge. For the Bees, it meant not having enough players to form a freshman team.
With less depth, coach McMurtrey said there will be some JV players who divide time between JV and varsity. The Bees feature 10 juniors and two seniors this year, five who were members of a Bonneville 17U club team which placed second in the 17 American Division of the USA Volleyball Girls’ Junior National Championships in June: Sorensen, Alexis McMurtrey, Sadie Lott, Paige Dixon and Sade Williams.
Bonneville entered junior nationals ranked No. 7 out of 64 in the 17 American division, qualifying for the gold bracket by going 7-2 in three days in Detroit to reach the division title match.
“It’s definitely the biggest stage we’ve ever played on,” Alexis McMurtrey said. “It prepares us to play at a high level around here.”
They fell to a team from Chicago in the championship, marking the farthest a McMurtrey-coached team has advanced at USA Volleyball Junior Nationals. Coach McMurtrey said there were nerves during the championship and the five Bees who were part of that team gained much from the experience.
“It just brought our level up,” she said. “Kids are getting stronger, physically stronger and smarter.”
The experiences the upperclassmen Bees share reach a crossroads this year as Williams and Dixon will be competing in a Bonneville uniform for the final time. Williams said it is hard to believe how quickly her final season arrived.
“It’s definitely flown by, playing with all my friends,” Williams said. “It’s gonna be really emotional seeing it end.”
Sorensen and Alexis McMurtrey expressed similar disbelief that they are among the upperclassmen. After years of being the younger members of older teams, they are now stepping into leadership roles.
“We have always been the younger kids playing up,” Sorensen said. “Now it’s up to us to know when to step up and lead our team. We’re gonna try to enjoy every moment and end on a good note especially with Sade and Paige leaving.”
Other storylines to follow:
Smaller 5A, 3A conferences
District 6’s 5A and 3A conferences look much different this year.
With Bonneville now in a six-team 4A District 6, this will be the first season since 2012 a team not named Bonneville or Idaho Falls will be 5A District 5-6 champion.
The new 3A District 6 is smaller, too, with the departure of Shelley to 4A. As was true with Madison and Bonneville when they were 5A District 5-6 opponents, intense battles took place between Shelley and Sugar-Salem in 3A District 6.
“I’ve always had great respect for Shelley’s program,” Sugar-Salem coach Cami Dodson said. “We’ll be sad to see them go for different reasons. If you’ve got a hard district, you’re ready to go (for state).”
The Russets’ departure also changes state tournament qualification. District 6 will now have 1.25 bids to state, meaning that the second place team from the district must win two play-in games to reach the state tournament. There were 1.5 bids available prior to this season, and the Diggers were in that play-in spot last year after taking second to South Fremont at districts. They later met in the 3A state title match, with Sugar claiming its second consecutive title and South Fremont earning its first state volleyball trophy since 2010.
“That totally changes the mindset of districts,” Dodson said.
Parity predicted in 2A
District 6’s lone conference to not experience a shakeup from the latest classification change, the Nuclear Conference, is anticipated to have some parity this year. West Jefferson coach Raquel Torgerson, who had four graduate from last year’s team that reached the postseason for the first time since 2010, expects the district title race to be wide open.
“I really think in our whole conference, I think it’s a clear playing field for all five teams,” Torgerson said. “I think all teams have a big middle, a 6-foot middle. We’re all kinda young.”
Firth coach Elda Park agreed that this season will be competitive. Like Torgerson, Park graduated four. The defending district champion Cougars placed third at last year’s 2A state tournament.
A year later, the Cougars still have several underclassmen and a few players who moved to other positions.
“They’ve worked hard this summer to improve,” Firth coach Elda Park said. “A lot of my kids have been with me since they were freshmen.”
Hello, goodbye in 1A
The 2017 Watersprings High School volleyball team made history last October. Two months after their gym opened for use by Watersprings coaches and students, the Warriors claimed the first state championship in school history in any sport upon defeating conference opponent Butte County in five sets in the 1A Division II state title match.
The Warriors graduated one from that team, but are without junior Abigail Yadon this season after a knee injury during track season that required surgery. Like last year, though, Watersprings’ roster is laden with underclassmen.
Like other classifications, Watersprings sees an intense rivalry in 1A Division II District 5-6 come to an end due to classification changes. Butte County, which played Watersprings arguably more times than any other team last season, rejoins 1A Division I this year after two district titles and two state runner-up trophies in two seasons in 1A Division II. The Pirates make the move having graduated seven from last year’s team.
The Pirates renew their rivalry with Challis upon moving to 1A Division I. Like Butte County, Challis has several new faces. The Vikings, who are defending district champions, graduated eight from last year’s team which placed fourth at the 1A Division I state tournament.