The Niwot volleyball team used to be considered an afterthought in the Northern League, struggling to get to .500 season after season until just a few years ago.
That was long before this current crop of Cougars got to NHS, and the rise in the program's respectability began in conjunction with Preston Brown's debut as the head coach.
For 2016 seniors Brynn Chavez, Sarah Falk, Courtney Smoljin and Rachel Oliver, this Friday's regionals represent their chapters to the story nearing an end.
But they are determined not to play their last match on their home court. After reaching the goals of a Northern League championship (for the second time) and regional host (for the third time in four years), they would rather go out, one way or another, on the floor of the Denver Coliseum at the state tournament.
"We've been looking to this point of the season for so long, and it's pretty surreal that it's finally here," said Chavez, the team's primary setter. "Everything that we've been working towards all comes down to this. Even making regionals is a pretty big deal, so it feels really good what we've done so far."
"I feel like we're definitely in a good place, and hosting a regional is just that next step in what we want to achieve," said Falk, a mainstay in the lineup the past three seasons who has 192 kills this year. "That's something we wanted to do from the first day of the season, and now that we've gotten that, the next goal is to win out and make state."
It's been a long climb up to prominence for Niwot. From 2007-2010 the Cougars averaged five wins a year, but in the past four seasons they have averaged 16, including this year's yet-to-be-concluded 15-8 mark.
Fourteen of those 15 wins came in sweeping the Northern League, and that means beating regional qualifiers Silver Creek, Longmont, Mountain View and Thompson Valley twice apiece.
The Cougars have seen the potential in themselves, but they'll actually be entering Friday's Region 11 tournament (a three-team pool also featuring No. 14 seed Battle Mountain and No. 26 seed Littleton) looking to get a little bit of their swagger back. Niwot went 0-4 at the Ponderosa Mustang Classic this past weekend, dropping matches to Pine Creek, Ponderosa, Chatfield and Douglas County.
"We definitely knew the teams we played were going to challenge us and I really think we under-performed a little bit, too," Falk said. "But it's a good experience, because having one team-wide goal coming into regionals, I think we realize that it's not going to just be given to us. It's not going to be easy."
"That tournament has always been tough, and I'm just not sure we were mentally competitive in the way we needed to be," said junior Mackenzie Fidelak, the team's kills leader with 278. "To be honest, I think there's added motivation because of it and everyone will be practicing this week with a determined mindset. We'll have to play better than we did last weekend if we want to win regionals and do well at state.
"I think we get so pumped up when we play at home, and there's a mindset going into the game to be able to play for our friends, and we all really want to do well."
The Cougars like their chances of using their home court, and hopefully a rowdy student crowd, to get back on track. Just two more wins will punch their ticket to the Coliseum, where they know anything can happen.
"In order to get to state, it's a long and hard-fought journey and so any teams that get there will have earned it," Chavez said. "Nobody just walks into the Coliseum thinking they were just handed their spot."
Local regional tournament schedules
At Fairview H.S. Saturday
No. 3 Fairview vs. No. 34 ThunderRidge, 9 a.m.
No 22. Lakewood vs. No. 34 ThunderRidge, 11 a.m.
No. 3 Fairview vs. No. 22 Lakewood, 1 p.m.
At Chaparral H.S., TBD
No. 6 Chaparral vs. No. 31 Monarch, TBD
No. 19 Eaglecrest vs. No. 31 Monarch, TBD
No. 6 Chaparral vs. No. 19 Eaglecrest, TBD
At Mountain Vista H.S. on Friday
No. 7 Mountain Vista vs. No. 30 Boulder, 4 p.m.
No. 18 Grandview vs. No. 30 Boulder, 6 p.m.
No. 7 Mountain Vista vs. No. 18 Grandview, 8 p.m.
At Ralston Valley H.S., Saturday
No. 12 Ralston Valley vs. No. 35 Legacy, 9 a.m.
No. 13 Coronado vs. No. 25 Legacy, 11 a.m.
No. 12 Ralston Valley vs. No. 13 Coronado, 1 p.m.
At Cheyenne Mountain H.S. Saturday
No. 3 Cheyenne Mountain vs. No. 34 Ponderosa, 10:30 a.m.
No. 22 Erie vs. No. 34 Ponderosa, Noon
No. 3 Cheyenne Mountain vs. No. 22 Erie, 1:30 p.m.
At Holy Family H.S. Friday
No. 7 Holy Family vs. No. 30 Steamboat Springs, 1 p.m.
No. 18 Pueblo Centennial vs. No. 30 Steamboat Springs, 3 p.m.
No. 7 Holy Family vs. No. 18 Pueblo Centennial, 5 p.m.
At Thomas Jefferson H.S., Saturday
No. 9 Thomas Jefferson vs. No. 28 Longmont, 9 a.m.
No. 16 Mead vs. No. 28 Longmont, 11 a.m.
No. 9 Thomas Jefferson vs. No. 16 Mead, 1 p.m.
At Silver Creek H.S. on Friday
No. 10 Silver Creek vs. No. 27 Summit, 3 p.m.
No. 15 Palmer Ridge vs. No. 27 Summit, 5 p.m.
No. 10 Silver Creek vs. No. 15 Palmer Ridge, 7 p.m.
At Niwot H.S. on Friday
No. 11 Niwot vs. No. 36 Littleton, 3 p.m.
No. 14 Battle Mountain vs. No. 26 Littleton, 5 p.m.
No. 11 Niwot vs. No. 14 Battle Mountain, 7 p.m.
At Colorado Springs Christian School on Saturday
No. 3 Colorado Springs Christian vs. No. 34 Brush, 11 a.m.
No. 22 Prospect Ridge vs. No. 34 Brush, 12:30 p.m.
No. 3 Colorado Springs Christian vs. No. 22 Prospect Ridge, 2 p.m.
At Resurrection Christian, TBD
No. 6 Resurrection Christian vs. No. 31 Peak to Peak, TBD
No. 19 Alamosa vs. No. 31 Peak to Peak, TBD
No. 6 Resurrection Christian vs. No. 19 Alamosa, TBD
At Yuma H.S. on Friday
2-1 Yuma vs. 2-3 Haxtun, TBD
7-2 Lyons vs. 2-3 Haxtun, TBD
2-1 Yuma vs. 7-2 Lyons, TBD