LONGMONT — As Longmont's Rachel Kusbel looks around the LHS gym these days, the senior can honestly say to herself "what a difference a year makes."
For the Trojans volleyball team, that sentiment echoes throughout the lineup — though it has nothing to do with talent and everything to do with team chemistry and culture.
It's vibrant. It's familiar. And, of course, it's leading to the success that the Trojans have become known for on the court for awhile.
Sitting at 19-4, Longmont is in a position to defend its home court on Friday afternoon hosting the Class 4A Region 8 tournament — and just two match wins puts them in next week's state tournament at the Denver Coliseum.
It's a far cry from the tail end of last season, when personal goals from a few individuals got in the way of what a lot of the rest of the team was eager to accomplish.
"Last year was just a rough season in general, and to come into a team that really wants to be here and work really hard with the same mindset, it's a really good feeling," Rachel Kusbel said after a determined Thursday practice session. "I feel we're all really connected on and off the court, and that team culture is driving our success. It brings us together emotionally."
Many of the current rostered players were on last year's squad, and injuries certainly also played a role in a 13-12 season that finished with a five-match losing streak and a pair of regional losses at Thomas Jefferson.
But Kusbel said the mission of shedding that past and looking ahead to restoring a legacy began in open gym sessions during the summer. Longmont head coach Holli Stetson, whose teams have had a remarkable run of state tourney appearances since 2010, also saw that re-commitment very early on though it did take a loss to Thompson Valley on September 21 for the team to really visualize just what direction they wanted to take.
"We all agreed last year was just a bad year and that it wasn't going to define us," said Kusbel, the team's leading attacker with 370 kills which also ranks fifth in Colorado. "We don't need to keep ourselves tied to that team."
"I think we had a solid foundation for a good team coming in, but we needed to make sure we executed on the court but also took care of that team culture of supporting each other at all costs," Stetson added. "That really made a difference. We've moved through the second half of our season with the feeling we could be and should be winning more matches, and being the team that we are capable of being — not settling for being mediocre."
Sticking together has resulted in some big wins down the stretch — including getting back at Niwot on October 10, Thompson Valley on October 17 and also beating 5A powerhouse Grandview in this past weekend's Cheyenne Mountain tournament.
Looking to keep things going Friday — Longmont welcomes Roosevelt and Vista PEAK Prep in the three-team round robin regional — the Trojans will continue to express its offensive explosiveness that centers around junior setter Annika Wetterstrom.
The dynamic third-year starter is averaging 9.2 assists per set (18th in the state) and distributing the ball to a cast of five players that have at least 122 kills apiece. Longmont ranks second in the state in total kills (1,002) and eighth in kills per set (12.2).
"Annika has a command at her position that we haven't had in a while," Stetson said. "She's by far the best setter in our league and one of the best in the state in my opinion. And she leads us in many more categories than just the setting aspect of the game."
For Wetterstrom, this year's regional and possible state appearance represents a chance to share in the legacy that so many Trojans have worked to build — including her older sister Sydney and Rachel's older sister Jessica.
"We want to keep our Longmont legacy going and show our town that it's fun to come to our games," Wetterstrom said. "We're all just more excited to play, in general, and I think we are looking forward to (Friday) as a chance to redeem ourselves from last year."
Class 5A regionals
at various locations
Region 1 (Friday, 4 p.m.) — Host: (1) Mountain Vista. Other teams: (24) Liberty, (36) Boulder.
Region 3 (Saturday, 11 a.m.) — Host: (3) Castle View. Other teams: (22) Lakewood, (34) Broomfield.
Region 5 (Saturday, 9 a.m.) — Host: (5) Fruita Monument. Other teams: (20) Fairview, (32) Douglas County.
Region 11 (Friday, 4 p.m.) — Host: (11) Denver East. Other teams: (14) Legend, (26) Legacy.
Class 4A regionals
at various locations
Region 3 (Friday, 1:30 p.m.) — Host: (3) Holy Family. Other teams: (22) Air Academy, (34) Elizabeth.
Region 4 (Friday, 4 p.m.) — Host: (4) Niwot. Other teams: (21) Eagle Valley, (33) Canon City.
Region 5 (Saturday, 9:30 a.m.) — Host: (5) Palmer Ridge. (20) Erie, (32) Widefield.
Region 8 (Friday, 4 p.m.) — Host: (8) Longmont. (17) Roosevelt, (29) Vista PEAK.
Class 3A regionals
at various locations
Region 5 (Saturday, 9:30 a.m.) — Host: (5) Resurrection Christian. Other teams: (20) Peak to Peak, (32) Englewood.
Region 10 (Saturday, 10 a.m.) — Host: (10) Lamar. Other teams: (15) Prospect Ridge Academy, (27) Frontier Academy.
Class 2A regionals
at Lyons HS, Friday
Region B (Friday, 3 p.m.) — Host: Lyons. Other teams: Dawson School, Wiggins.
Twelve regional champions in each classification advance to state tournament.