With the fast pace of a volleyball match, it's pretty difficult to pick up the nuances of an opposing player in the heat of the action.
But Fairview senior Audrey Cheng and Boulder senior Emma Chow have often tried to glance each other's way over the past three years — taking away many different things from each other that they said have made them better players.
While their teams have had an intense rivalry as pretty evenly matched squads over the past couple of seasons, there's a mutual respect between them that has spawned from playing the setter position with precision, poise and passion.
"I think what I like most about (Chow) is her energy and leadership, and she just brings so much passion to the court, and I know every time we play she is the best at that," said the Knights' Cheng, last year's BoCoPreps.com player of the year. "She's a great blocker, something to fear at the net and I admire that a lot."
"Audrey is one of those players that has such great technique and hands ... it's exciting watching her play because I know I can pick up things from her game," Chow, a staple in the Panthers lineup, added. "It's fun to play against her because of her energy. We are friendly but it's also a rivalry, sure."
Volleyball is as much a team game as there is, but the setter is often described as the quarterback of the court. Positive emotion and energy is encouraged and healthy, but physically and mentally it can be argued the setter has to be most even-keeled player on the court at any given time.
Physically, being able to throw a variety of looks at the opposition is an important component of having a successful offense. Going to the far pin on a deep set, getting a good quick set or second-touch attack or even being able to set against the flow continuously keeps defenses on their toes.
"If you can set your hitter up in a one-block situation, you're golden. You can't just be feeding one person all the time and you have to understand that it's a team effort," said Cheng, who recently recovered from an ankle sprain that had her out of action a couple matches. "Your job is not to feed the best player on the team but to feed whoever does not have a block up."
Like a quarterback with the ability to audible depending on what the defense is doing, coaches want setters who can make changes on the fly. Cheng and Chow seem to relish the responsibility, too.
"The setter is on the court at all times and they touch the ball ideally on every play, and I expect my setters to demand a good pass from the passers and set up good situations for our hitters," Fairview coach Kelsey Spencer said. "There's so much more to it than just setting to the right spot; it's knowing who's hot; knowing to try the middle; knowing when to re-set someone after an error. They get to be creative. Audrey is great at reversing when maybe some things are getting stale."
"It comes with its responsibilities for sure, and I enjoy it immensely. And to be honest, I think the setter is responsible for picking up all your teammates so I am like the craziest one out there," said Chow, who is currently eighth in Colorado in total assists with 383. "I love being in that supporting role but at the same time being able to say, 'I'm working hard for you'."
Few teams are lucky to have setters like Cheng and Chow, who have been varsity starters at the position for several years. Cheng started as a freshman and instantly became one of the state's highly sought-after college recruits, and Chow has started since her sophomore year helping the Panthers stay the course in a strong Front Range League.
Cheng initially made her verbal commitment to Virginia Tech but for academic and athletic reasons changed her commitment to Columbia of the Ivy League. Chow is verbally committed to Brown University — meaning the two players will get more chances to play against each other over the coming few years.
Fairview and Boulder aren't the only area teams blessed with talent at the position this year. Legacy senior Simone Borelli is third in the state in total assists (439), and Holy Family junior Sara Berghoff (377) and Silver Creek senior and Louisiana-Monroe recruit McKenna Webster (332) also find themselves in the top 20 statewide.
Going by assists per set — which accurately reflects talent among setters in both the 5-1 and 6-2 offenses — Webster (9.5 per set), Niwot's Brynn Chavez (9.4), Borelli (8.4) and Erie sophomore Megan Casillas (8.4) are on fire midway through the season.