CASA GRANDE — In its first season in the 5A Conference, Casa Grande Union faced plenty of challenges in the Sonoran Region that featured a handful of playoff contenders.

The Cougars finished 7-10 last year in a compact season that was delayed by COVID-19, but they managed to snag the No. 16 spot to qualify for the play-in round of the state tournament; it was the first time since 2015 that CG Union made it to the playoffs.

Although their playoff experience was cut short after being swept by Scottsdale Desert Mountain, the Cougars are ready to take that next step this year and finally win a playoff game.

“We made playoffs last year, so our goal is to repeat,” CG Union coach Matt Reeves said. “There’s no reason we can’t be a team that’s consistently making it to the postseason. Our goal for this year is to do what we did last year and hopefully get that first win; the school has never had a win in the playoffs so that’s our next step.”

CG Union has six returning players from last year’s team in Dariana James, Mikelle McAfee, Avery Beem, Aaliyah Jordan, Cynae Cureton and Aliyah Robbins. All are are seniors except for McAfee.

“We’re moving a couple of girls around,” Reeves said. “Aliyah Robbins, I’m taking her from the middle and moving her to the right side; hopefully with her height that’ll give us some really good blocking on big hitters that we’re going to face when we get into our region.”

Robbins led the team in blocks last year with 58. Outside hitter Cureton was also a force up at the net, as she was second on the team in kills with 104.

Reeves is hoping all six returners can take on some type of leadership role and share their knowledge of everything that went into making the play-in round last year.

“It was a lot of hard work at practice and playing tough teams and fighting for every single point along the way, because the points matter, especially when you’re in a good region like this,” he said. “I think that’s what helped us make that post season, so having that leadership and the knowledge of what we were able to do last year. I think they can bring that back this year and help out with the younger girls.”

Added to mix this year are Allie Villareal, Ashlee Nardo, Laneasha Sosa and Demi Choate. Choate is the only sophomore in the group of juniors, and there is also freshman newcomer Jaiden Luchene.

“(Luchene) is a great offensive player; we’re working on her defensive skills to get her where I need her to be,” Reeves said. “She’s going to be amazing.”

Sosa and Choate will be taking over for Robbins at the middle blocker position. Nardo is listed a setter and Villareal as an outside hitter.

It’s going to take a collective team effort to fill in the gap that was left by Kalyssa Fox, who was basically the do-it-all for the Cougars.

“Kalyssa was amazing, she could play all the way around and do anything I needed her to do,” Reeves said. “It’s going to take a couple of girls who are going to have to fill those shoes because it’s not going to be one player. That’s a girl you hate to lose out of your program.”

Last week, the Cougars played a scrimmage against Vista Grande, and Reeves’ biggest takeaway about his new squad is that they’re coachable.

“They’ll make the adjustments as I’m calling them out,” he said. “Stuff I see if I need them to change, if I mention it, it’s getting done in the middle of the game, which is great. Our offense looked OK when we were running good sets. When things were off, they were being smart with the ball and keeping it in play and playing really good defense. I’m a defensive guy, that’s my thing, and I was really happy with the defense I saw.”

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Maria Vasquez is the Sports Editor for PinalCentral. She can be reached at mvasquez@pinalcentral.com.