Brisa Winterton expects to feel the heat this season. As defending Class 5A state champions, the Pleasant Grove volleyball team, too, is geared up for a pressure-cooker of a season.
But even with a target square on their backs, the Vikings aren't afraid to fan the flames.
"We are fire," said Winterton, the Vikings' senior setter. "When we are having fun, we're on fire and no one can stop us. It's just the kind of intensity we have at Pleasant Grove."
Pleasant Grove certainly blazed through last postseason with four consecutive 3-0 decisions culminating in a sweep against Lone Peak in the state title match. It was the only time the Vikings defeated the Knights in four tries last season.
However, the impressive run was aided by all-state seniors Delayne Daniel and Melissa Fuchs. Now Winterton, outside hitter Rachel Gale and six other seniors must carry the banner.
It could feel like a lot of pressure, but Winterton and Gale are looking at things a bit differently.
"We won state last year and no one can take that away from us," Winterton said. "But no one has it this year. The team that works the hardest will get it, and we think that could be us."
"We're a totally different team," Gale said. "We're viewing it as an opportunity more than something to be nervous about."
An arsenal like the Vikings' doesn't leave much room for concern.
Offense always has been Pleasant Grove's forte, and this year is no different.
Winterton leads the offensive charge as the team's leading, and certainly most experienced, setter. It's a position where accuracy and consistency is most valued. But Winterton's biggest challenge, and strength, is reading each of her hitter's distinct styles.
"It's not just about setting the ball in the same spot every time," she said. "It's all about having that connection."
That intuition paid off last season. Winterton varied the Vikings' offense just enough to keep the Knights on the defensive in the title match. Pleasant Grove played near-perfect volleyball through the entire tournament, with Winterton contributing 38 assists to the cause in the state title match.
The Vikings are picking up where they left off. The intensity level during the latter part of last season carried over into early-season practices. So has the skill level.
"It's been amazing to see how much the younger players have improved," Gale said. "I think this team is just as good, if not better, than last year's team."
Whether that translates to another state title is yet to be seen. But for now, they'll continue to play with fire.
"It's really the best way to describe us," Winterton said.
Teams to watch
Pleasant Grove • The Vikings beat Lone Peak in straight sets to claim the Class 5A title last season, and Pleasant Grove looks to be loaded again with a trio all-state selections returning.
Sky View • Taylor Duryea and Sammy Cox will be key in the Bobcats' title defense, but watch out for Jessie Jorgensen's Timpview squad, a runner-up a year ago, and a Westlake team featuring Anela Hansen and Shianne Pace to give Sky View serious competition.
Desert Hills • The Thunder, led by MVP Blair Bliss, are poised for a repeat.
Enterprise • The Wolves are looking to put the memory of last year's championship defeat behind them. Senior Dakota Robinson and junior Riley Lyman, a first-team all-state choice last year, should help them do just that.
St. Joseph • It took five sets for Monticello to beat the Jayhawks in the title game. But the experience should only help St. Joseph this time around.
Players to watch
Brisa Winterton, Pleasant Grove • The senior setter, a first-team all-stater last year for the Vikings, should have another big year teeing up things for outside hitter Rachel Gale.
Taylor Duryea, Sky View • The Bobcats' all-state outside hitter causes problems for opponents.
Blair Bliss, Desert Hills • Bliss earned MVP honors by helping lead the Thunder to a state championship last year. She had 21 kills in the title match.
MaCail Wood, Beaver • The middle blocker helped the Beavers to a third-place finish in 2012.
Britt Sederholm, St. Joseph • At 5 foot 11, the outside hitter is looking to get the Jayhawks a title.