Brock Netter, 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 Unioto and Piketon as the countdown to the first serve of the season begins to heat up.
Head Coach: Natalie Stulley, third season
2018 record: 23-3
2018 postseason finish: 3-1 loss to Sheridan (25-11, 25-15, 19-25, 25-22) in a Division II district final
Dating back to 2013, Unioto has been the epitome of the word “consistent.” The Shermans have racked up an overall record of 134-19 during that time, including a 47-5 mark under coach Natalie Stulley over the last two seasons.
Under Stulley, the Shermans have won a Gold Ball, a co-SVC title (alongside Southeastern last fall) and have appeared in back-to-back district championship games.
The only problem is that they haven’t been able to capture a district crown, a goal that has eluded them since 2013.
“Over the last two years, we’ve lost seven players and five of them are playing in college, which is great,” Stulley said. “But at the same point, with the talent we had, we should have done much better in the tournament.”
Stulley is hoping that a third time will be the charm for her Shermans.
“Our expectations aren’t going to change, but the way we have to approach things will,” Stulley said. “We’re still strong in a number of areas and we’ll rely on those experienced players to get us through.”
The bad news for the Shermans is that Amanda McGlone, Jocie Fisher and Taylor Strickland are no longer rosters members. Between McGlone and Fisher alone, that’s 440 combined kills and 184 blocks that will no longer be there.
“Our front row isn’t quite as physically strong as the last couple of seasons,” Stulley said. “Since the power isn’t there, we’ll use different types of hits, but I have complete confidence in the girls to get it done.”
While the front row works itself out between players like Kacey Pierce and Cree Stulley, Unioto is fortunate to have returning players in the back row … beginning with Hallie Pinkerton.
Pinkerton finished last fall with a team-high 432 digs alongside 28 aces, which was second on the team (Alexis Miller, 29).
She’ll be alongside a returning Emily Coleman, who passed out a team-high 394 assists, as they aim to lead the charge in their senior seasons.
“Hallie has been here all four years and has gone through the battles,” Stulley said. “She’s going to have to be our vocal leader and talk with our hitters to let them know what our options are attacking. Emily is back and although she’s playing a different position, she has that experience factor that is valuable.”
Also returning for her final season is Amber Cottrill, who did a little bit of everything as shown by her 342 digs, 134 kills, and 20 aces last year. You can also watch for Jerzi Paul, who Stulley says can be a breakout player.
With six seniors from last year’s district runner-up team returning, and the Scioto Valley Conference being as competitive as any league in the state, could this be Unioto’s season to finally break through at the district level?
“I think the outlook of the league is a little more even than it has been in the last couple of years,” Stulley said. “We’re an older team, but young in terms of volleyball experience. I think the overall competitiveness this year will set us up to see what we can do come tournament time.”
Unioto’s first serve of the season is scheduled for Aug. 20 at Logan Elm.
Head Coach: Alayna Lytle, first season
2018 record: 7-17
2018 postseason finish: 3-0 loss to Huntington (25-7, 25-13, 25-16) in a Division III sectional final
Piketon has always hung its hat on being a sound defensive team. Over the offseason, the Redstreaks got even better in that area with first-year head coach Alayna Lytle taking over the program.
Lytle was, and remains, the only four-time SVC Defensive Player of the Year in conference history. So, as you might imagine, defense and mental toughness will be at the top of the Redstreaks’ priority list.
“I’ve tested the limits and gotten on the girls pretty hard ever since I started,” Lytle said with a laugh. “I’ve given it to them and they’re pretty hard-headed. But I’ve noticed they have an ability to just shrug things off and move to the next play. It’s a whole new era of Piketon volleyball and they’ve responded very well towards myself and the system.”
It’s a new era indeed, with a few players having to step into bigger roles … namely at setter where Maci Conley 2,198 career assists have graduated, alongside Gracie Lightle, who led the team in digs (238) and aces (27).
However, Lytle believe she has the right players in Maddy Scott and Ava Little to step up and fill those voids, as well as provide a voice on the floor.
“Maddy is going to be our setter,” Lytle said. “She’s one of my quiet leaders who leads by example and she’s phenomenal. Ava is stepping up into a new role this season and, despite her being an underclassman, she’s really stepping out and being vocal.”
Although Riley Williams, who led the team in kills with 190 is also gone, Jordan Sharp and her 101 kills from last season is back, as well as Ally Ritchie.
Keep an eye on Macy McDowell as well, who Lytle believes can be a difference-maker for the Redstreaks.
“She’s really quiet, yet she’s in on every play,” Lytle said. “She gets the job done and I can look at her as a player who can help us get to where we want to be.”
Playing in the SVC is no joke and the Redstreaks know they have their work cut out for them after winning just seven games last year.
But with a new coach and a new system, it also creates a sense of mystery, one that Lytle hopes works in her favor.
“I’ll be honest, I think we can be a middle-of-the-pack sort of team,” Lytle said. “We are very young and only have three seniors, although they are really good players. We’re building the program up. I believe we’ll surprise a few teams and have a really good season.”