At least four Johnson County high school volleyball teams can make legitimate cases for winning their sectionals and making deep runs into the state tournament.
One team in particular likely will be considered among the early favorites to win a state championship.
For the county’s four Class 4A schools, that playoff path is a little different from what it was a year ago. Center Grove, Franklin, Greenwood and Whiteland again will be joined by Franklin Central in Sectional No. 13. However, Roncalli, which defeated Center Grove and Franklin on its way to a semistate berth last year, was moved north to Sectional No. 11 and replaced by Martinsville.
Expectations are always high for the Trojans. They might be higher than ever this year, with five starters returning from a team that saw a promising season cut short last October.
The Trojans went 29-4 and captured the Metropolitan Interscholastic Conference championship but lost to Roncalli in the sectional semifinals. Although they lost just two senior starters from that team, one of them was Daily Journal Johnson County Player of the Year Ali Line.
Head coach Dana Matis said that, while no single player is likely to replace Line’s production, the Trojans’ five-player senior class has done an excellent job keeping the team focused during offseason programs.
“Those seniors really stepped up this summer with workouts and conditioning and lifting,” Matis said. “I expect a lot out of them, and I’ve just been really impressed with them and the direction they’re heading.”
The Center Grove senior class includes middle blocker Madison Smeathers, setter Taylor Hammil, outside hitter Malea Howie, Tonia Rumble and Lindsey Archer.
Junior Macy Carrabine can play anywhere on the court, and sophomore Devynn Merriman will fill the defensive specialist role.
Matis said she and her coaching staff have stressed simpler goals in practice rather than focusing on getting back to regionals for a third time in four years.
“We’ve talked in practice about winning the day, winning the drill and getting one person better every day,” she said. “If we’re getting one person better every day, we’re getting better as a team.”
Still, Matis said, there was no doubt that the returning players have their eyes set on a longer run in the state tournament than last year.
“Having a successful season and then ending the way it did, with so many players back, that has really fueled their fire. They’re not going to forget that, and they don’t want anything like that to happen again.”
The Lancers went 20-15 last year and claimed the school’s first-ever outright Mid-Hoosier Conference championship. That was a dramatic improvement from the 2013 season, when they won just five games.
With the entire roster returning, hopes are high for even more wins and perhaps the program’s first sectional title since 2011.
Head coach Tina Bottorff was not surprised by last year’s success. She said those gains were a product of two years of preparation.
“We really focused on the technical part of the game and teaching skill the previous two years,” she said. “Toward the end of the season last year, we started seeing the technical side turn into the tactical side.”
After not having a senior the past two seasons, Edinburgh has four on this year’s roster. Makala Lain will play right side, Lillie Parmer is the libero, Megan Rooks will set, and Sydney Richardson will serve as a utility player.
Juniors Mara Cox (middle), Brianna Howard (outside/defense) and Sydney Schlotter (utility) and sophomore Lexi Adams (middle) round out the Lancers’ lineup.
Bottorff said the Lancers preach the team concept every day.
“We may identify some girls individually, but the girls understand that while some teams have a top five, we have a top 14,” Bottorff said.
That commitment to collective effort and recognition pays off in the Lancers’ strength within games.
“We’re a pretty good ‘out-of-system’ team,” Bottorff said. “Let’s face it, in most high school matches it’s not often you see a perfect pass to a setter, a perfect set to an outside or middle and then a perfect hit. A large percentage of the time, you’re out of system.
“We try to create chaos in practice so we can learn how to handle that. I feel like one of our strengths is knowing what to do when we are out of system.”
Last year was one of near-misses for Franklin.
After two straight Johnson County Tournament titles, the Grizzly Cubs lost to Center Grove in the county championship game. Then they fell to Roncalli in the sectional championship game.
Lost from that 27-9 squad are three starting seniors, including Jess Admire, who won the Daily Journal Johnson County Player of the Year award in 2012 and 2013.
This year’s roster is young but talented.
Morgan Hash, a senior, will play both in the middle and outside. Kaylee Phillips, another senior, will lead the back-row defense. Sophomore Rachel Kinney was among the Class 4A leaders for kills as a freshman. And freshman Brooke Phillips will step right in and take over the role of setter.
Second-year coach Travis Gabehart said the challenge in practice so far has been to see how the younger players complement the returnees.
“I think we have a lot of great players,” Gabehart said. “Right now we’re working through some stuff to see how people play next to each other. I think if we get the chemistry down, we’ll be a pretty tough team to beat.”
In addition to trying different combinations, Gabehart said, the Grizzly Cubs are working to make better use of time on the practice court.
“Our motto this year is: ‘The will to win is important, but the will to prepare is vital.’ In the past, I felt like we didn’t work hard enough and utilize every practice. That caught up with us in sectionals. So this year we are really being intentional about our preparation and mindset in practice.”
The Woodmen lost five seniors from last season’s 14-16 team. But first-year coach Amanda Ratliff sees plenty of talent in the returning players and believes early-season success could help this year’s squad improve the win total.
The lineup will be built around a trio of seniors. Olivia Stilley will play middle, Emmalee Stier will hit from the right side, and Hannah Schover will be a defensive specialist.
Junior Camryn LaMonaca gained experience in a utility role last year but will play more outside this year. And junior Emily Streuwing is healthy after an injury-plagued sophomore year and ready to contribute from the outside as well.
Sophomore Hanna Anderson started as a freshman and returns as the Woodmen’s setter.
Ratliff said Greenwood has enough talent to give the coaching staff more options for substitutions in games.
“We have depth. That gives us the flexibility that if someone is having an off night, we have somebody else who is ready to go,” said Ratliff, who was an assistant coach for the Woodmen last year. “We have a couple girls we can depend on right now, but we’re still searching for an identity.”
The Woodmen begin the season with a simple but achievable goal: Be more competitive.
“We want to get beat, not lose,” Ratliff said. “We want to be in championship games. We’re trying to give ourselves the chance to compete at the top level.
“We have the talent. We just have to get the attitude to back it up a little bit. I think when the games start, and they start to see their potential, they’ll start expecting more from themselves.”
Greenwood Christian Academy
After several years of building, the Cougars are ready to break through. They return all but two players from last year’s team that went 14-15 and fell to Lutheran in a Class A sectional.
Leading the way is senior Hannah Peters. Head coach Jeff Fishburn said Peters has taken her game to another level with diligent work in club play during the summer.
“She was good last year,” Fishburn said. “But now she’s really, really good. She’s a great athlete and had a chance to play at the next level.”
Peters will have plenty of help. Senior Lexi Hooten was a defensive specialist last year and has moved to setter. Delanie Kent, another senior, has a blend of athleticism and length that makes her an ideal middle player.
Junior Katie Cruse “just crushes the ball” from the right side, according to Fishburn. A pair of sophomores, Grace Peters and Sierra Gilson, also should play important roles for the Cougars.
Although this is his first year as head coach at Greenwood Christian Academy, Fishburn is familiar with the Cougars roster. His transition has been aided by last year’s head coach, Megan Tolin, who remains on staff as an assistant.
“I watched these girls play last year, and I’ve seen so much improvement from what they were then to what they are now,” Fishburn said. “I think we’re solid in all areas. We serve the ball well, we pass the ball well, we have great hitters.”
If they can improve their on-court communication, Fishburn said, he expects big things from this year’s Cougars team.
“We’re going to be really, really good. We’re going to win a lot. I don’t think there’s a match that we won’t be competitive in. It’s going to be a neat year, and we’re excited about it.”
The Braves return all but one player from last year’s team. Head coach Andrea Knight expects that experience to have a major impact in matches this season.
Five seniors will play significant roles for Indian Creek. Lucy Keiweg will be an outside hitter, Baylee Wilson will set, Mikayla Baugh will play both middle and right side, and Sydney Williams will spend time in the middle and as a defensive specialist. Elly Nickell is new to the team and will fill a defensive specialist role.
Knight, who is in her second year running the program, said the Braves hope to make their biggest strength from a year ago even stronger this year.
“We were good serving last year,” she said. “We should excel at that again, but we want to focus on serving to the correct spots on the court this year.”
Knight wants the Braves to be smarter with where they place the ball in all aspects of the game.
“We need to improve our court awareness. We need to understand where the ball needs to go before we make a pass or set and not just make the easy play.”
The rebuilding effort continues at Whiteland, which returns seven varsity players. A group of three seniors is expected to lead a young, but deep, roster.
Kylie Glover will set, Madison Scott will play outside, and Alyssa McClung will patrol the right side of the court for the Warriors. Head coach Kristin Estridge said each senior brings a unique set of leadership skills to the court, but they work together well to provide guidance for the younger Warriors players.
That experience will be balanced by some young talent. Sophomore Lindsay Boltz started last year and has raised expectations for her play this season.
“It’s been awesome to see her grow from her freshman year to this year,” Estridge said. “She’s really stepped up, and we expect to see great things from her.”
Juniors Elaina Robards and Hannah Reed are defensive standouts. Depth will come from sophomores Mackenzie Blazek and Aubrey Odgers, while freshman Tabby Holzhausen is expected to contribute immediately.
A deeper, more talented roster has the Warriors thinking about not just adding to their win total but making noise in the conference race and season-ending tournaments.
“We’re a much deeper team this year,” Estridge said. “We’ve worked hard on our intensity and our defense over the summer. If we are able to meet our full potential, we can be competitive in the Mid-State conference and the Johnson County tournament.”