The St. James volleyball team is coming off of a rough season in 2017, but it was an important one.
The Lady Tigers had a lineup that included three freshmen, Mackenna Rodgers, Hannah Marcee and Makiah Marshall, getting regular playing time last year, which gave those young players a chance to learn. Now that young core returns and looks to take some big strides in 2018.
"Those three, I know last year that was very nerve-wracking for them to come in and be starting freshmen. They did a really nice job, but it's so much better for this year, because they have that experience, they know what to expect," said head coach Julie Guese. "They know they can handle it, which is a big deal, and they've all gotten so much better already. I think they're really excited about the upcoming season."
While last year's team was young, the Lady Tigers did lose some big guns to graduation. Myla Picker was an important senior leader for St. James last year and Taryn Sanders graduated a year early, but the biggest role to fill is Mackenzie Rodgers, who was St. James' setter and captain last year. Rodgers was a player that took care of business all around the court and will be a big loss, but coach Guese thinks her sister, Mackenna, will be able to fill those shoes. While Guese wants Mackenna to play a similar role, she stressed that she wants Mackenna to be herself and not her sister.
"It's hard to replace somebody like Mack, where she has such court sense and she knows everybody's position, knows what they should be doing, she wants to help them. She's definitely hard to replace, but we do have her sister," said coach Guese. "She follows in her footsteps, but she's still her own person out there.
"I haven't called her Mack and I told her I wouldn't," continued Guese with a chuckle. "It is funny because they're both setters, they're both hitters and they both come with the same strong leadership skills."
Mackenna likely won't have the chance to be quite as flexible as she was last year, because she's now the Lady Tigers' only primary setter. Coach Guese has seen Rodgers slide into that more specific role with a great attitude.
"She's going to be setting for us all the way around for us this year, because we don't have another setter who's ready," said the Lady Tiger head coach. "She already told me 'coach, I understand. I will run a 5-1, it's okay. I know I'll still get some swings in.' I told her we'll get somebody ready, she's only a sophomore."
Rounding out that group of now-sophomores that played so much last year is a dangerous duo in the middle of Marcee and Marshall. The pair have great length and have made some great strides as they gear up for their second varsity season.
"Hannah Marcee is a pretty big deal. She's a kid that has the long arms and the quick speed. She can hammer the ball. She needs to get a little more consistent with her serve, but she has a really nice jump serve that kids are scared of," said coach Guese. "Hannah played middle and Kiah plays middle. They both have the height and quickness, they both have pretty good court sense. And they're both super competitive and they get made if they mess up, because they want to do better. You want that a little bit."
Also returning is a group of seniors that should play important roles. Katlyn Branstetter and Courtney Cale are both defensive specialists that will sub in for some younger players when they get to the back row. They'll provide a stable back line, while fellow senior Raina Forstrom provides some punch as an outside hitter.
"We've got Katlyn Branstetter, who's a senior, and Courtney Cale, who's a senior, and they're both defensive specialists. We're excited to have them. They've both played every year and they've finally come in with their court sense," said coach Guese. "Raina has a lot of good stuff going for her. She played club ball for the first time this past season, so she got some extra experience and it shows just in the little summer stuff we've done."
The Lady Tigers will have a few new faces as well. Camille Bullock and Makayla Case are both sophomores that will look to make an impact. Bullock will be a right side hitter for St. James, while Case will be an outside hitter. Coach Guese has been particularly impressed with what she's seen from Case.
"She's coming along tremendously. She's got a powerful, powerful serve, she can spike it. She's learning court sense for where to spike it too, but she can hit pretty hard when she wants to and her passing has been really good."
Because so many of the younger players were thrust into action last season, these girls have already had the chance to get used to playing together. Coach Guese has really liked the chemistry on the court that she's seen from this group.
"It's great, because the big freshman crew from last year that's now sophomores, they've been playing together for a long time and just getting that experience at the varsity level has been tremendous," said the St. James head coach. "Over the summer, we played in a couple of Licking Tournaments and that first one, they really jelled together and they were so excited. We went all the way to the championship. We lost to a big Fort Zumwalt school from St. Louis and it was even close. It just built up a lot 'oh my gosh, we can do this'."
Coach Guese thinks this team is going to be able to make some big strides from the team that won six games last season. As their young core gets more and more comfortable playing together at the varsity level, the better they will be."
"They're such a good solid group, I'm expecting big things from all of them. I'm expecting big things from them this year and the years to come," said coach Guese. "I'm looking for a lot more wins and I think the girls are too. They talk about it a lot. Even last year, when we did have losses they were super competitive, so they talk about wanting to finish these games, up that record and get some conference wins. We usually are the underdogs in our conference and they're really excited about being more confident of their ability to finish games."