The confidence grows with each win.
You can ask any member of the Judge Memorial High volleyball team what the goal for this season is, and the answer will be the same:
To win the state tournament.
It isn't a case of robust cockiness. The Bulldogs could have their best team in school history. At 23-2, Judge hasn't lost a match since Sept. 4. It has won 14 of its last 15 games entering this week. The Bulldogs hold a 14-match win streak, and they have shown no signs of letting up.
"We really want to win the state," senior Sydney Schaefer said. "We feel right now that we're a team without many weaknesses. We're playing together as a team, we have great chemistry and everyone is in love with the sport. The coaching staff really cares about us, and it's all working right now."
Coach Matt Carlson said records haven't been kept, but it's believed that no Judge team has started a season winning 23 of its first 25 matches.
That makes the Bulldogs a favorite heading into the Class 3A tournament.
So how are they doing it? It's nothing spectacular, really. Judge happens to enjoy a perfect storm of balance. The Bulldogs are good at the net, offensively and defensively. When they have the chance for a kill, it usually ends up in a point. They share the ball and rack up plenty of assists. The liberos are strong and leaders on the back line. It's hard to score against them.
Carlson said sophomore Lauren Naatz should have Division I offers piling up by the time she's a senior. Taylor Gustafson leads Judge in assists and has proven to be a major asset as a setter.
"The girls play very hard and they are even-keeled," Carlson said. "The most important thing for us is winning the state championship, and we know that we have what it takes to be contenders."
The work ethic has improved. Carlson's team participates in an additional 30 minutes of practice each day. The key moment in the season was two wins over Woods Cross, one of the best programs in the state.
"That's when we knew that we had a chance to be good," Schaefer said.
Most important, the Judge players have responded to the first-year coach. The Chicago native played at the University of Utah. He coached at the club level before coaching at Judge.
Carlson, 28, knows he's young. But he and former BYU player Chris Gorny have turned around things in a short period.
Carlson saw talent when he first stepped into the gym over the summer. He also saw a timid bunch, so he worked to change that. He challenged his players to think big, reminding them each day that they had what it took to be competitive.
It's paid off.
"I just wanted them to be aggressive," Carlson said. "I wanted them to go out and play. If they made mistakes, let it be out of being aggressive. When I got here, it was about changing some habits and working hard. I wanted them to stop being emotional and to just play."