Tooele volleyball coach Kristi Brown didn't have much to work with when she took over the program before the 2009 season. The Buffaloes were coming off a winless season and the student body had little interest in volleyball. It was so bad that Brown could barely field a team. She had 18 players try out for the squad in 2009.
That wasn't just for varsity. That was 18 players total for the freshman, sophomore, junior varsity and varsity teams. Tooele won one match that year.
Then Brown found a way to point the Buffaloes in the right direction. Tooele won seven matches in 2010 and seven more in 2011. Last year's seven victories earned the Buffaloes a trip to the state tournament for the first time since 2006. Sophomore outside hitter Brin Stewart was one player who helped pushed Tooele back into the playoffs.
"Things were really down here for a while for some of the girls," Stewart said. "It was a great experience to be a part of the turnaround in my first year."
Stewart, who started as a freshman last year, is part of a core group of returners Brown is excited about.
"When I got here, fundamentals were so low. We had to teach them the basics of how to play volleyball," Brown said. "Now, we have started to build a good, young team. We have eight returners with varsity experience, and only three of them are seniors."
That experience gives Tooele hope this year. Eclipsing the seven-win mark is a very real possibility, and it needs to happen for the program to grow. According to Stewart, just winning a few matches isn't good enough anymore.
"It was nice that we made it to state, but we didn't really compete," she said. "We want to make it and be competitive. We think we can win a few at state, and maybe even place."
The last time Tooele won a playoff match was 2005.
Things are different now. Brown had 54 girls try out for the team this season. Interest in the program is building. Players are becoming more dedicated. The culture is evolving.
Although it is impossible to know anything before playing the first match, Brown doesn't think winning a few playoff matches is too far-fetched. She sees that the sport is becoming more competitive, and her team is keeping up.
"These kids are going to camps and playing on club teams, and they are hanging with players from the big schools. They might not always beat them, but they are making them sweat a little bit," Brown said. "As a team, we are further along a week into practice than we were midseason last year."
No longer buffaloed
The Tooele volleyball team goes into the 2012 season looking for its second straight state tournament appearance after going five years without a trip to the playoffs.
The Buffaloes won seven matches in each of the past two seasons. In the three seasons before that, the team won a total of three matches.
Since Kristi Brown took over as Tooele head coach in 2009, the number of girls to try out for the team has tripled (18 in 2009 to 54 in 2012).