FARMINGTON — The Piedra Vista volleyball team enters the 2014 season hoping the third time is the charm.

In both of the last two seasons, the Lady Panthers have advanced to the state championship game only to fall short of the title. But with seven returning varsity players, head coach Ron Becker believes this is the year his team will break through.

"I'm really optimistic, though, and I think the senior leadership will carry us," Becker said.

Leading PV into the new season will be First Team All-State setter Vanessa Harris, who will be in her third year running the Lady Panthers' attack.

Harris will have to get an experienced group of hitters, including Haleigh Lovato, Autumn Begay and Tegan Woosley, involved in the offense as PV tries to replace 4A Player of the Year Samantha Sofka.

"It's not easy losing Sam, but at the same time, we have a lot of girls ready to step into that role," Becker said.

The PV head coach said most of the girls played in the two state title losses and that has been used as motivation throughout the summer workouts.

"It's been a topic of conversation," Becker said. "We just have to find the consistency and finish."

Becker is expecting the last two champions — Goddard, who won in 2013, and St. Pius X, who won in 2012 — and Centennial to be the toughest 5A competition.

Within District 1-5A, Becker said Farmington and Aztec will present a challenge like always, while the additions of Miyamura and Gallup add a new wrinkle to the season.

"We can't bypass any of that," he said of district play. "Farmington and Aztec will be strong. I don't know a ton about Gallup and Miyamura, but Gallup has always been solid."

FHS and Aztec will look to make return trips to the postseason, but each will have to replace about half of its roster due to graduation.

Lady Scorpions head coach Dan Hickman said his team will be in rebuilding mode after graduating seven seniors, but the goal of making the playoffs remains a top priority.

"Our goal is to be in the postseason. Naturally, we'd love to beat PV, but that's not the focus," Hickman said, whose team went 14-8 a season ago.

Only two seniors, Lydia Byrom and Jordan Curry, return to the team, and junior Ashley Flack will run the offense from her setter position.

"We're not carrying over much from the previous years," Hickman said. "We're working to see where the strengths and weaknesses are."

The FHS squad will continue to work in sophomores and juniors as the team tries to find the right mix of players come district play.

While PV begins its season on Tuesday with Bayfield, Colo., FHS doesn't play its first match until Sept. 4, giving Hickman a couple of weeks to tinker with the rotation.

"We've got a lot of room for improvement," he said. "The girls had good showings in summer, and it gives us hope."

Hickman said the team has a difficult schedule this season but opens with some winnable games early in the year that will hopefully get the squad on the right track.

Aztec is in a similar spot to FHS after graduating seven of its 14 players from a team that went 14-9 and made the playoffs.

The Lady Tigers will expect strong years from 6-foot-3-inch middle blocker Aubrey Folk and outside hitters Taylor Santistevan and Mikayla Paxton.

"They are the returners," Aztec head coach Anna Strauss said of the trio. "We have some good underclassmen who will do so good things for us."

Paxton is still recovering from a leg injury suffered this summer, and Strauss hopes she'll return to the lineup in a month.

Aztec will begin its season next week with a tournament in Belen on Aug. 29 and 30.

Strauss said she's looking forward to the early-season challenge for her squad.

"We have a pretty tough schedule, but the girls are coachable and eager to get better," she said.

Gallup and Miyamura enter the district having struggled with the San Juan County schools.

The two schools from McKinley County went a combined 0-4 against their new district rivals.

Both Gallup (7-12) and Miyamura (1-19) finished under .500 in 2013 and missed the playoffs.

Joshua Perry covers sports for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4577 and Follow him @jperrysuu on Twitter.