Several times last season, Silver Creek volleyball coach Tatum McKenzie found herself caught up just watching the action the Raptors often provided on the court.
With 11 seniors on the team that had mostly been playing together all throughout their childhood, the first year coach admitted she was more a conductor than an instructor.
What sprouted from a 22-5 season in 2016 is a recognition that Silver Creek is in it for the long haul as a talked-about program in Class 4A, and the few holdovers from last year's team are making it a point to relish what their past work is fostering right now.
The program is growing after a regional championship, and senior Rylee Anderson is eager to carry on the legacy left by last year's team.
"Last year, the seniors left a great leadership quality, so this year we just want to pick that part up right where they left it and keep going," Anderson, a feared outside hitter in the Northern League, said after a recent practice. "I really feel like it's been pretty easy to keep that, and the incoming freshmen and sophomores we're getting are blending nicely with the varsity team.
"We spent a lot of time together this summer, getting to know each other as people and as a group. What you do off the court is just as important as what you do on it, and you'll be able to see even now in our practices what that meant."
Anderson finds herself as the only full-year starter back — but boy, what a player to have on your side if you're McKenzie. She recently went to nationals with the NorCo Volleyball Club out of Windsor, where she is teammates with Niwot's Mackenzie Fidelak, and her SCHS career includes 651 kills in just two years. A whopping 441 of those came last year, which was good for fifth in the entire state.
While that's just the beginning of her athletic accomplishments — she's a three-time state high jump champion in 4A — and she holds herself to some pretty high standards that makes her a perfect work-by-example kind of leader.
"With Rylee leading these guys, they are in really good hands," McKenzie said. "She's broken records, she's going to break more of them. I really feel like she comes in as the glue that holds everybody together."
Whereas last year's senior night was a lengthy parade, one of the biggest contributors to Silver Creek's state tournament berth was just a freshman when she popped on the scene — and Caitlin Volkmann will most assuredly be a key cog in the Raptors system this season from the outset.
She came on to start games in the wake of a serious injury to Tori Schindler, and in 39 sets played she tallied a .383 hitting percentage and 19 blocks. Volkmann may have been the fresh-faced "newbie," but her performance spoke for itself.
With all the good that came together toward the end of last year, it's hard for both Anderson and Volkmann to dismiss the feelings of losing both pool play matches at state. It was not a great performance when all the chips were down, and the pair are determined to get another crack at it.
"Everyone there really wants it at that point, and you have to be super competitive to make it to that level," Anderson said. "I thought we played well, but it just wasn't enough."
"I think it was more about pressure, pressure put on ourselves," McKenzie said. "We walked in with expectations way up here and assumed we were just going to get there rather than working toward that. The game came, and it was the first time where at moments we didn't look like we knew what we were doing. That's on me, that's where I have to be better at preparing them. Goals, mental imagery, all that stuff to add confidence in every possible way, we're doing."
Beating Niwot in Northern League play would certainly go a long way in confidence, and the Raptors are focused on trying to end Niwot's run at the top. To do that, McKenzie expects players like freshman libero Tess Peter and junior transfer Jayla Harding to find their niche immediately. Harding, who came from Lyons, will be able to play right away and adds another state-experienced player to the roster.