Derrick Webb, Staff Writer
With volleyball season peeking around the corner, all local teams are getting ready for what they hope will be a successful year at the net.
Here’s a look at Southeastern and McClain as the countdown to the first serve of the season begins to heat up.
Head coach: Jimmy Hutton, fifth season
2018 record: 24-4
2018 postseason finish: 3-1 loss to Tuscarawas Valley (22-25, 11-25, 25-22, 26-28) in Division III regional final
Over the past three seasons, Southeastern’s volleyball program has transformed itself into perennial regional title contenders.
The Panthers, who are 67-14 over that time period, are winners of three straight district titles and have appeared in two straight regional final contests. They haven’t rebuilt, they’ve reloaded.
And there’s more good news: this coming fall, Southeastern welcomes back reigning SVC Player of the Year Skylar Hice — who’s returning from a shoulder injury after posting 314 kills, 48 aces, 39 blocks and 413 digs during her junior year.
“She’s still not trusting her shoulder a little bit. Everytime she hits the ball, she’ll look and say, ‘That didn’t hurt.’ But she knows her limitations. We’re just taking it slow and easy right now,” Southeastern coach Jimmy Hutton said of Hice. “What’s really impressed me so far is her leadership. She’s a senior and she needs to be a leader. She has the experience and she has to pass that on to the younger kids.”
However, while Hice does return, the Panthers will be young in many other places.
After last year’s Elite 8 run, Southeastern was forced to say goodbye to four key seniors in Lauren Goebel, Jessica Bolte, Sierra DeLong and Holly Walsh. That quartet leaves big shoes to fill, especially Goebel, who graduated with the SVC all-time assists record in pocket.
So far, Hutton hasn’t decided who will be the team’s new setter or what his offense will look like.
“We really don’t know what we’re doing yet,” Hutton said. “But Hannah Lougheed played on my traveling team … she’s a sophomore, she’s big, she’s a right side hitter, she can bang the ball. We decided to possibly try her in a 5-1 and then Ameris [Cooper] was a setter for our reserve team. We’ve been working her in the mix of a 6-2. So we’re trying things to get some chemistry.”
Aiding the team’s efforts alongside Hice, Lougheed and Cooper will certainly be senior Lyndsey Skeens, a 6-foot-1 middle hitter that tallied 155 kills and 52 blocks last fall, and sophomore Lexi Lockwood, a defensive specialist that led the team with 416 digs.
Skeens and Lockwood bring experience to the table that most of their teammates don’t have.
Two of those teammates would be sophomore Ava Christopher
“She played a little bit in the tournament last year and can be really good,” Hutton said. “She brings a positive attitude to the table. She’s always happy and she’s always smiling. I wish I could be like that all the time. She’s very athletic and it’s kind of a hidden athletic ability.”
While Hutton continues his search for the rest of his eventual starting lineup and rotations, he’s certainly not ruling out a return to glory. Even with SE’s youth, he still feels like his Panthers compete at any level.
“Any team has that potential,” Hutton said of getting back to the regional level. “It’s just a matter of the girls putting it together, staying healthy and pushing hard. But I think we do have a chance with a young team.”
The Panthers begin their journey on Aug. 20 at Vinton County.
Head coach: Taylor Alsop, third season
2018 record: 10-13
2018 postseason finish: 3-0 loss to Circleville (15-25, 20-25, 13-25) in Division II sectional semifinal
Slow and steady wins the race. McClain’s volleyball program is inching closer to the finish line.
The Tigers, who will be playing under third-year coach Taylor Alsop this season, have been quietly improving over the past two years. After last year’s 10-13 overall mark, Alsop feels as if this year’s group is ready to take the next step towards success.
“We had a pretty good season last year,” Alsop said. “We finished fourth in the [Frontier Athletic Conference] and improved on that position from the first year I was here. We’ve been trying to grow on what we started. It’s all about the progress.”
Playing key parts in the team’s progression are four returners from last season, three seniors and a junior all-conference player.
“I have three girls who are returning seniors this year in Cierra Bolender, Kaleigh Easter and Ashley Hardesty,” Alsop said. “We also have junior Jaelyn Pitzer, who received first-team honors for us in the league last season. We’re looking at those four, mostly, to lead and step up.”
Bolender played middle for the Tigers last fall while Easter served as the team’s setter. Bolender posted 113 kills and a team-high 35 blocks while Easter passed out 441 assists.
Hardesty was the team’s libero, tallying 247 serve receptions alongside 153 digs, while Pitzer did a little bit of everything, finishing with team-highs of 176 kills, 63 aces and 211 digs.
Junior Maddy Crawford will also be in the mix after suffering a late-season injury last fall. Before that injury, Crawford had 38 kills, four aces and 11 blocks. She’ll see more playing time, assuming she stays healthy, and will be joined in doing so by sophomore Iva Easter.
“Maddy is one of my juniors and she was injured during a game against Miami Trace,” Alsop said. “So she’s coming back after that and we’ve played around with her hitting outside. Then there’s Iva Easter, a sophomore middle hitter. She’s done a lot for us and she kind of slips under the radar because she’s so young.”
When looking at the FAC volleyball race, the title is Chillicothe’s to lose. The Cavaliers were 9-1 in league play last season and won their second consecutive crown. However, Alsop said she thinks her team can compete at the top of the conference.
“I think that we have a good chance at competing for a league title,” Alsop said. “We’ve moved up every year, the girls have worked hard and they really want it. I think this could be a year where we could do pretty well.”
McClain starts it season at Beaver Eastern on Aug. 19.