There was no precise moment this volleyball season in which Center Grove shifted from good to the fringes of very good.
Trojans outside hitter Malea Howie nonetheless has her own opinion.
“After we lost at the Cathedral Tournament to Avon, we came back that Tuesday and beat Brownsburg in three (games),” said Howie, a 5-foot-11 senior referring to Center Grove’s 25-23, 25-18, 25-13 victory on the Bulldogs’ court on Sept. 28.
“We knew we had to get a win that night because they were good and we would have to come out with all we had. I think we did and realized our potential.”
Since defeating Class 4A No. 4 Brownsburg, the Trojans, who were ranked fifth and 23-5 entering Tuesday night’s match at Lawrence Central, disposed of Edinburgh and Franklin to claim the Johnson County Tournament title.
Often dwarfed in reputation by future Division I teammates Madison Smeathers (Ohio State) and Taylor Hammill (Auburn), Howie has been as instrumental to her team’s success as anyone.
Eight times this season she’s posted 10 or more kills, with 13 at Mt. Vernon (a 25-7, 25-22, 25-21 Trojans’ victory) on Sept. 19 being Howie’s season high.
Howie’s well-rounded skills have her second among Trojans players in kills (198) and third in blocks (43). She’s also contributed 59 digs and 23 service aces.
Dana Matis’ first season as Center Grove’s coach was 2012. She’s watched Howie, then a freshman who would be substituted in during matches, steadily blossom into a player who would produce 66 kills as a sophomore and 163 during the 2014 season.
“I think Malea has continued to improve every year that I’ve coached her. I think she’s a player that has her best years of volleyball ahead of her just because she’s improved so much,” Matis said. “She really has improved a lot through this season, too.
“Becoming more consistent, but also as a hitter we are looking more to put the ball away. As the season has progressed she is stepping more into that role.”
As one of the Trojans’ five seniors, Howie has learned what’s expected of her now isn’t solely about numbers.
Last season’s senior starters — Ali Line and Regan Wentland — were more vocal than this season’s group, though Howie along with Smeathers, Hammill, Tonia Rumble and Lindsey Archer are making strides in this area.
“I definitely learned leadership qualities from Ali because she would always stay on us about being a team. I would say the seniors are working on it, especially Taylor and Madison. We’re getting there. I try to talk, but I’m better by example,” Howie said.
Matis, too, notices progress.
“Our seniors during practice and throughout workouts in the summer are holding people accountable and holding the team to a high standard,” she said. “Especially in drills. Making sure we’re not cutting any corners there.”
Center Grove hopes to enter its own Class 4A sectional on Oct. 20 riding a wave of momentum.
The Trojans host Bloomington North on Thursday and New Castle on Saturday before closing the regular season schedule at Roncalli (Oct. 13) and at home against Chatard (Oct. 15).
Center Grove is bidding for what would be the 27th sectional championship in team history. Memories of last season’s first-round sectional loss to Roncalli have yet to fade. Howie is confident the Trojans have enough firepower to make it through the sectional and beyond.
“We’re not where we want to be yet, but we’re doing pretty well so far,” she said. “When we want to we can pull off that grit. We have it in us.”
THE HOWIE FILE
Name: Malea Howie
Born: Anderson, IN
Family: Parents, Derek and Amy; brother, Zeke, 19
Favorite TV show: “Charmed”
Favorite food: Pasta
Favorite movie: “Napoleon Dynamite”
Favorite team: Chicago Cubs