The high school volleyball season is right around the corner and both Rolla and St. James have seen some big changes. While Rolla is going to miss a few seniors from last year's team, their biggest turnover is at coach. Trish Knight stepped away from the head coaching job and Stephanie Pritchett will return for her second stint at the position. Over in St. James, the coaching staff remains the same, but the Lady Tigers will have to adjust to massive roster turnover. St. James lost six of their players to graduation after last season and now have a roster with just three players that have seen varsity action.
Pritchett returns to the sideline
While coach Pritchett wasn't the Lady Bulldogs' head coach last season, she's been around this team quite a bit. Her daughter Loran was on the team as a freshman last season, so she spent a lot of time watching these girls play. She has also coached many of them in club volleyball, so she won't be coming in cold.
"I've known these girls, I've coached them in club before, I've known them just because they've been around Loran and my older daughter," said Pritchett. "So I know the girls pretty well, but not as a coach as much full time. Juniors is different, so when you've coached them at juniors it's not the same every day strategy."
Since taking over the job, coach Pritchett has made some changes, primarily on the defensive end. She wants to find a defensive strategy that will best suit her players.
"We changed our defense. It suits this group of girls a little better," said Pritchett. "They just have a desire to play. I think, defensively, we're going to be a little bit of a stronger team. They're willing to get on the floor and work really hard. Coach Knight is a good coach, she's very fundamental and obviously knows what she's doing, so we're just gonna build on some of the stuff she started and expand a little bit more on what these girls at this level can do.
"We changed our defense so that we line up a little differently," continued the Rolla coach. "It helps them to get where they're supposed to be, stay there and play from that position a little better than the read-type defense that they were trying to do last year."
That defense will also continue to get a boost from some great height in front. Junior Megan Brown and sophomore Rebecca Janke tower over the net, while some better jumpers like Shelby Ply and Courtney Colench can also play the net well.
"We definitely have the height on the front row, athletic height on top of that, so that's nice," said Pritchett. "Blocking is really the first step of defense, so if your block gets set and goes to the right place and does what they're supposed to do. If they don't block the ball, we should be standing where we're supposed to be standing around that block. We still have some work to do to get our middles where they're supposed to be, getting our outside blockers to set the block where we want it to be set, things like that, but those are things that you continually work on all season long."
This team did lose a few seniors, but Rolla is on their way to replacing several of those players. Morgan Gabrielle played back row for the Lady Bulldogs last year and Michelle Jeenakorn was an excellent hitter, but Rolla isn't short on returning pieces to fill in those holes. This year's squad has a total of eight seniors, three juniors and no freshmen, so it shouldn't be overly difficult to fill any gaps.
"Right now we have Macy Moreland in the lead row position. She's primarily been a setter through her high school career so far, she's a senior, but right now she is in that lead row position. She just has a desire to play and will give you 110% all the time, which you need in a defensive player," said Pritchett. "Outside we have a lot of different people to fill that position. We're got Ami Ikuenobe, who did not get to play last year because of an injury. She's come back really strong. Courtney Colench, Loran all are playing some at that outside position. We added Skylar Garcille too who's 6' 2" or 6' 3", who will play some right side. We kind of filled in actually a lot of people for Michelle's place and I think it makes us stronger all around because we're not just relying on one person."
Having watched this team last season, coach Pritchett knows how well a lot of these girls played last year. She thinks that just about everyone on the roster has improved over the offseason.
"I think they all have, really," said the Lady Bulldog head coach. "Courtney and Ami, I think, both have stepped up their game a little bit or a lot. Megan (Brown) is still working on timing and things like that, but she's already in front of where she started last year for sure. I think Loran has made some huge strides from last year to this year. She's grown too, which is always nice for a setter to be tall. She's athletic and has just improved in her hitting game and her setting. I think Leah Rasco has improved a lot. She's quick, she's vying for the other starting setting position as a senior.
"They've really all gotten better from even the beginning of the summer to now, Pritchett continued. "I've seen a big difference in their ability to see what's going on on the court and actually play defense harder."
The heart of this team should be Shelby Ply. The junior plays in the middle of the court and was one of their standouts last season as the year progressed and coach Pritchett plans to lean on her quite a bit.
"She is actually going to be kind of a rock for the team this year. She's going to be one of our captains," said the Rolla head coach. "She's just so athletic. She doesn't let anything go at the net, her blocking, the way she moves, being able to get up and do something with the ball because she can just jump out of the gym. Shelby is definitely a key to our success this year."
While Ply will be their rock in the middle, this is going to be a team effort. Coach Pritchett doesn't want to be overly reliant on any one player, she wants to see her team play as a unit.
"We are planning on leaning on everyone," said Pritchett. "That's something that sets this team apart from what we've seen over the last few years here. We are a full team. We have people that can hit from the back row, people that can hit on the back row, we have blockers, we have defensive players. I feel like once we get a set lineup and get going, we're going to kick in and we're going to be solid all the way around."
Coach Pritchett isn't necessarily setting the expectations of winning the Ozark Conference or winning their District, but she thinks this group is capable of finding a lot of success this season.
"I know that everybody says 'well we're gonna do this and we're gonna win conference this year,' but I feel like if we play like I know we can play, we're gonna be in the thick of things. We're gonna be right up there with those teams," said the Rolla head coach. "District-wise as well. We play Willard in the Licking Tournament and they're always District Champs, so that will be a big test for us at the end of September. That will tell a lot."
Freshmen look to make an impact in St. James
The St. James volleyball team has a lot of turnover coming into 2017 after graduating almost two-thirds of their roster last season. The Lady Tigers have just three returners to their varsity with senior Mackenzie Rodgers leading the way. Head coach Julie Guese says she'll be filling those holes with some JV players, as well as a trio of solid freshmen coming into the fold.
"This year, we had a huge freshman crew coming in, so we actually had girls that were just in eighth grade (last year) and three of those girls are already bumped up to varsity because they have pretty good skills coming in," said Guese. "We needed them because we had a lot of spots to fill. Those three girls are gonna fill some spots, that would be Makiah Marshall, Mackenna Rodgers, which is our senior Mack Rodgers' younger sister, and Hannah Marcee.
"We have some girls that are seniors that were on JV last year," continued Guese. "So the girls that are new to the varsity squad would be Destiny Donnelly and Kasey Strong. They'll probably be strong coming off the bench for us. They don't have a lot of varsity experience, so that will have to just come with time."
Mack Rodgers will be the heart and soul of this year's Lady Tiger squad. She has the most volleyball experience as a year-round player and will be someone that the more inexperienced players can go to for help.
"Mack Rodgers, she's been helpful since day one when she was a freshman," said coach Guese. "She already came in with club ball experience and playing year-round makes a huge difference in knowing where to be on the court. Year after year she's been helpful with the girls in position, this year especially, the girls are totally looking to her to help them out with 'Mack! Where should I be on the court?' Hopefully that will start clicking on their own very soon, but right now she is just a tremendous leader and staying positive, just helping them where they need to be."
Rodgers is crucial this year because coach Guese lost her second coach on the court, her daughter Kenzie. She said her daughter graduating has made this season an interesting transition as a coach, but primarily because she misses coaching her daughter.
"It's definitely different. I think it's more different just because of that mother-daughter relationship, that she's not there anymore. She was just always there. Since I started coaching, she was always there," said the St. James head coach. "It was really hard to think about her not being there. She was my right-hand man and she would see some things that I didn't always see, so it was nice to have her there to talk to when I needed to talk about volleyball and stuff. We're gonna get along without her, because she was a power hitter and she could really get after the ball sometimes too."
With so many new players, Guese has put in a lot of work to figure out who that starting six will be and what kind of rotations to run. She's still trying to figure that out as the season approaches.
"It's been tough. We've played around with a lot of little switches and stuff. We've got some kids with some different injuries that may be able to not do front row, but can do back row or vice versa," said coach Guese. "So playing around with those things is tough. We actually only had three girls with varsity experience, so making sure that they're out there most of the time."
Those two players with the varsity experience alongside Rodgers are junior Raina Forstrom and senior Myla Picker. Coach Guese will lean on that trio quite a bit.
"Raina Forstrom is my lefty who's a pretty strong hitter, so she's gonna be hitting outside with Mack a lot," said Guese. "Myla Picker actually had varsity experience last year too and she's a senior. She's a really strong leader this year for us. Sometimes she can be out there all the time, sometimes she can be on the bench, it just depends on how the game is going. She's really helpful and positive and we need those kinds of players."
One of the other players looking to take a spot in the starting lineup is junior Taryn Sanders. She'll be playing a defensive position, as well as filling in for Kenzie Guese in the middle.
"She's going to be doing some middle for us in the front row and then playing defense too, most of the time," said Guese. "She's quick, she's smart. There's a couple things we're trying to work with her on, but she's really been jumping well and getting on top of the ball. Her hits aren't powerful yet, but it's still coming, which is good to see because she's been getting on top of the balls going right, short and middle, but the power still needs to come for her and we thinks that's going to happen too."
The Lady Tigers also have the benefit of some natural chemistry between the Rodgers sisters.
"I have the Rodgers sisters setting now, so their opposites of each other as far as setting goes, but Mackenna, the younger sister, she has a nice arm strength. She plays club all year-round too. Her hitting is coming around, she's smart on the court and she's got a really nice serve, just like Mack does," said Guese. "It's exciting to have the two of them. They're both very court smart and they both want to work hard and they both wanna play."
With so many new players, coach Guese isn't trying to set specific goals or expectations for the season. She just wants to see those players taking strides throughout the season.
"I'm looking forward to the season. I think we'll see a lot of progress," said Guese. "I mostly have been instilling in them that they have to keep working hard and that we need them to hustle after every ball and they need to be more scrappy."