Lewis-Palmer volleyball coach Susan Odenbaugh is quick to deflect the focus off of her and onto her players.
But there is no denying that Odenbaugh is the unquestioned architect behind what is now a state championship team.
On Nov. 9, Odenbaugh’s Rangers won the golden volleyball that has eluded the program for 11 years. Lewis-Palmer did so in dominating style, disposing of Air Academy in straight sets, 25-11, 25-18 and 25-10 at the Denver Coliseum.
Junior outside hitter Alexa Smith paced the Rangers’ stellar attack. But she got a lot of help from her friends.
Odenbaugh, or “Odie” to her players and just about anybody who knows her, has meticulously and patiently built her program into a state power. The center piece of the puzzle was put in place in 2011 when Smith moved over from The Classical Academy after her eighth-grade year.
A dominant club player at the time, Smith quickly established herself as one of the top players in the nation.
Odenbaugh tinkered with things, added new parts, and eventually found the right mix of players who gelled on and off the court.
The latest title is the fourth for Lewis-Palmer (27-2) since 1993. The others came in 2001 and 2002. Odenbaugh has been a part of all of them. She was a long-time assistant under former coach Don Lash and took over for him in 2002.
“It takes kids buying into your program,” said Odenbaugh, who has been involved with the program for 25 years. “But when you work hard you reap the rewards.”
Lewis-Palmer has advanced to the state tournament in 11 of 12 seasons under Odenbaugh. They were runners-up to Cheyenne Mountain in 2012 as the Indians won their fifth consecutive championship.
Smith has been the focal point of the team since she joined the program in 2011. But there were already some working pieces in place.
Setter Abi Bartalo was a starter as a freshman in 2010. Bartalo, who also attended TCA through the eighth grade, comes from an athletic family. Her father, Mike, was a standout football player at Mitchell. Her uncle, Steve Bartalo, was a star running back at Doherty and Colorado State University, and later played in the NFL.
Also in 2010, right side hitter Sam Krainock started on varsity as a freshman. Carson Nicodemus, the third senior on this year’s club, played on the C team as a freshman in 2010 and swung as a sophomore.
The 2011 campaign saw the addition of right side hitter Nicole Montgomery. The jumping jack Montgomery - a two-time state champion in track last spring - transferred from Discovery Canyon after her eighth grade year.
It appeared that the Rangers had the right mix to win a state championship last fall when 6-foot-4 middle blocker Claire Felix transferred in from TCA. But as good as Felix was - she is now at UCLA - the Rangers came up on the short end in the state championship match.
The final pieces of the puzzle were put in place this summer with the addition of sisters Haley McCurley and Emily McCurley, and Mariah Evans. The McCurleys transferred from Douglas County. Evans transferred from Colorado Springs Christian School.
The 5-7 Haley McCurley, a senior outside hitter, gave almost seven inches away to Smith, but her unique style of hitting gave the Rangers another dimension up front. Emily McCurley, a sophomore libero, brought her cat-like reflexes to the team and became one of the leaders in digs. Evans, a sophomore setter, allowed Odenbaugh to implement a 6-2 rotation. That gave Bartalo a chance to breath once in a while, which in turn made her more effective on the court.
The rest of this year’s varsity squad was made up of underclassmen who should continue to improve; sophomores Tylar Fugate, Amber Matalus and Emily Yoswa, and freshmen Lydia Bartalo and Elizabeth Reich. Emily Bartalo attended TCA through the eighth grade.
“To win a state title everything has to fall into place,” Odenbaugh said.
Lewis-Palmer’s only hiccups this season were against the defending 5A champ Doherty (3-2 loss on Sept. 19) and Cheyenne Mountain (3-0 loss on Oct. 26 in the finals of the Cheyenne Mountain tournament).
The Rangers cruised through the postseason, winning 18 of 19 sets.
One would think Lewis-Palmer has a great chance to repeat in 2014 with the bulk of the team returning. Odenbaugh is already thinking ahead.
“Losing Abi is going to be huge because of her leadership and experience,” Odenbaugh said. “We’ll move Nicole back to outside hitter. The question is who will be my right side.”