Aztecs gather in a pre-game prayer circle for their teammate

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By Alex Zener

Aztecs gather in a pre-game prayer circle for their teammate. [Billy Hardiman/Wrangler News]
Aztecs gather in a pre-game prayer circle for their teammate. [Billy Hardiman/Wrangler News]
Ridge Vanderbur passes during last season. [Billy Hardiman/Wrangler News]
Ridge Vanderbur passes during last season. [Billy Hardiman/Wrangler News]
The Aztec volleyball team is all about being strong this season while playing on the court but they are being strong off the court, as well, for their teammate Ridge Vanderbur, who was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia this past summer. “Our season is about being ‘Aztec Strong’ because we are dedicating our season to Ridge,” said coach Brynne Evans. “Ridge’s strength to fi ght his disease has motivated our team to fi ght in our matches.” “Whether Ridge is on the court or not, he is one of our teammates. His jersey is on the bench for every match. He is one of us.” The Aztecs have nine players returning from last season’s 13-19 team.

The six seniors and three juniors should have the experience and leadership to help the rest of the team increase their win record this season. “We are meshing together two groups of clubteam players who have played together in either club or school volleyball for years,” said Evans. “I am pleased with how we are playing as one so far this season.” Some of the players to watch include senior Trystin Nelson and junior setter Ryan Iskandar. “Trystin has become a dominant blocker and hitter on our team,” said Evans. “Although Ryan is our setter, he has the ability to hit for us as well.” In addition to Trystin and Ryan, Evans adds Jeff rey McCain to the mix as one of the team’s go-to hitters when a point is needed. McCain and Nelson were also named by Evans as the players to put up the strongest block on the team.

Moving up from JV to the varsity team this season are junior middle blocker Austin Dixon, sophomore defensive specialist Dion Deguzman and sophomore middle blocker Connor Niemtschk. “Austin has great athletic ability, height and power (and) is steadily increasing his knowledge of the game,” said Evans. “Dion is a fantastic and dynamic young defensive player with a great court sense, while Connor moves well across the net.” Corona has three defensive players who are also among the team’s best servers. “Antonio Guarino, Dion Deguzman and Chris Baker are all fantastic back-row players that we rely on heavily,” said Evans. “These three are also some of our best servers.” In addition, the Aztecs have two freshmen on the team.

Chris Davis sets the ball during a match against Mesquite. [Billy Hardiman/Wrangler News]
Chris Davis sets the ball during a match against Mesquite. [Billy Hardiman/Wrangler News]
Setter Chris Davis has given the team the option to open up its game offensively, and outside hitter Ryan Pike, a player with great natural ability, is improving every day with his work ethic, according to Evans. Evans is counting on returning caption Russell Johns and fellow seniors Devon Nelson and Alex Cox to help provide leadership on and off the court. The Aztecs are going to need to fi ght hard to make it to the state playoff tournament this season with the new rules. It is doubly important after losing out last year on a technicality. “We were very frustrated last year when we were kicked out of the tournament due to the rule that three teams in each section are allowed to earn a spot in the tournament,” said Evans. “Our goal is to not put ourselves in that position again. We have to earn our spot in the regular season by being in the top two.” With an improved work ethic and team unity, the Aztecs seem to really want to drive each other to be better every day and make that spot in the playoff s, according to Evans, but they will have to fight every section game to win. Getting to the state playoff s may be difficult again this season because some of the best teams in the state in the same Section V, including Gilbert, Hamilton and Desert Vista.

The Aztecs have won their last three matches but were scheduled the play the Gilbert Tigers on April 2 at home, Horizon Honors on April 7, and then Mesa on April 9. It may be an uphill battle to make the state playoffs, but when the Aztecs need to be reminded to be strong and fight through adversity, all they have to do is look for Ridge’s empty jersey on the bench. “Whether Ridge is on the court or not, he is one of our teammates,” said Evans. “Our goal is “State for Eight” in honor of Ridge. He is one of us.”

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