When the Durango High School volleyball team couldn’t get together inside its gymnasium last summer to prepare for a fall season, the Demons went outdoors. And when the fall season was postponed until the spring, the Demons stayed outside.
Playing grass volleyball, first-year Durango High School head coach Kelley Rifilato saw her new players transform their game. And without a player taller than 5-foot-10 in the starting rotation, Rifilato opted to implement a system that allowed her highly athletic but smaller team to shine.
By the time the spring season began, the Demons were able to use that to surprise opponents en route to their first 5A/4A Southwestern League championship in a decade.
“To win the league championship title in a year as crazy and as unknown as this one is so fulfilling,” said DHS senior captain Paige Ammerman. “We have been working hard since the beginning of this summer and prepared ourselves mentally to start in the most unexpected time. To end our regular season as seniors on such a high note is so exciting and very much deserved.”
The Demons (10-3, 7-1 SWL) ended the regular season at home Friday night against Fruita Monument. DHS already had a two-game cushion in the league standings entering the match, which ended in a 3-1 win for the visiting Wildcats. DHS lost a grueling first set 31-29 before winning the second 25-17. A key third set went Fruita’s way, 27-25, before the Wildcats claimed a 25-22 win in the fourth. Fruita (9-3, 6-2 SWL) finished one game behind DHS in the league standings to finish second.
Now, Durango will look to the postseason with eight regional tournaments set for May 1 to determine the eight teams that will make the Class 4A state tournament, which will be played at the World Arena in Colorado Springs. The Demons are on the bubble of getting the chance to host one of those regionals and won’t know until brackets are released early in the week.
“We can only keep our fingers crossed. Every day it seems to be something different with the rankings,” Rifilato said. “The girls have worked hard for that opportunity. Only 24 teams are making regionals this year, and only eight go to state out of more than 70 teams. It’s going to be a pretty elite thing if you make it to state this year, but this group can make that happen.”
If Durango gets to state, it will be with the same balance it has seen all year. Sophomore Mason Rowland has led DHS with 138 kills, while fellow sophomore Leah Wolf has 106 and senior Kyle Rowland and Paige Ammerman have 89 and 79, respectively. And while Mason Rowland and Ammerman are getting it done in the hitting department, they are also leading DHS in assists, as Ammerman has 247 in 49 sets played and Rowland has another 193.
Ammerman, who will be a college setter at Minot State in North Dakota, has enjoyed the opportunity to play an all-around game in the system Rifilato has set up this season.
“I attribute it to last summer and playing grass doubles outside,” Rifilato said. “Girls had to play the whole game, not just one aspect. A lot of kids are very position specific these days, but getting to play four or five months outside taught them the diversity of every position and having to do it all.
“The girls on this team, their speed and athleticism speaks for itself. That has helped us be so balanced offensively but also created balance defensively because we never have holes on the court.”
DHS uses its defense to set up its attack. While senior libero Leah Wesley has led the team in digs with 276, four other Demons have more than 100 digs. Kyle Rowland has 200, Lainey Voss has 131 and Mason Rowland and Ammerman each have 124.
And while DHS hasn’t been an elite blocking team this year, it has made up for it serving with 126 team aces, led by 33 from Ammerman.
Because of the Demons’ diverse strengths, opponents haven’t had a player they know they can attack, and they also don’t know which hitter might get set at any time.
“One thing we have definitely worked hard on in practice is spreading the net,” Ammerman said. “We have started in a lot of different rotations this year with hitters in many different spots, so I think as an opposing team it would be super difficult to try to anticipate what might happen.”
Along with Ammerman, Rifilato praised the all-around play of fellow senior captains Kyle Rowland and Voss.
“I think Kyle should become a coach. She’s analyzing at all times, and it’s nice to have a coach on the court like that,” Rifilato said. “With the masks on this season, there’s a lack of communication and they can’t always hear what I’m saying. Kyle steps up and can do that.
“Lainey is so level-headed, but she’s the confident one who speaks up. She gives us that balance and can do literally everything on the court. Having all those different leadership styles has been big for us.”
For Ammerman, the biggest key to the Demons’ success has been building trust. It hasn’t been easy in a fast and furious season, but it came quickly to a DHS team that had to adjust to all the changing elements created by COVID-19 along with a new coach and system.
“We have adjusted incredibly well to the circumstances,” Ammerman said. “A lot of that is thanks to coach Rifilato. Kelley is always on top of it and has really advocated for us this year. Although this season has been super odd, there has really been no burn out. When we have three games and three practices a week, it’s tiring but super fun. All anyone wants to do is play. We are so thankful to Kelley’s commitment to our team this year. We couldn’t have accomplished this without her.”
DHS finally had a full week to practice before Friday’s regular-season finale with Fruita Monument. Now, the Demons will get another week to prepare for the regional and the chance to push into that state tournament.
“These girls have been so awesome. They have all been so accepting of their roles, including our three amazing freshmen who have been ready to go all year,” Rifilato said. “They are such a fun group to work with, and I hope it continues a few more weeks.”