Any discussion of high school volleyball in Johnson County usually begins with Center Grove and Franklin.
This year, it might well end with Greenwood Christian Academy.
After breaking through for the first sectional title in program history last fall, the Cougars have their sights set on becoming the first team to hang a state championship banner in the GCA gymnasium.
“We have very big goals,” head coach Kayla Back said.
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“We’re looking to be a top contender in (Class A). We’re looking to be a threat, to go after it, and I want to be there on November 3 practicing for that Saturday morning.”
Back’s optimism is certainly warranted. The Cougars have five starters back from last year’s team, a quintet of seniors that has helped lay the foundation for the program’s success over the last three years.
“We all get along really well,” libero Aubrey Odgers said of her classmates. “There’s never drama or any jealousy or anything; we all seem to bring each other up and really support everyone.”
There was some drama and adversity for GCA last season; Back took over as the head coach midway through the campaign following the abrupt departure of Jeff Fishburn. The Cougars lost five straight matches in mid-September, four of those in one weekend tournament against larger schools, but they got their momentum back at the right time.
After avenging an earlier loss by beating Edinburgh in the sectional semifinal, Greenwood Christian got down two sets to none in the final against Indianapolis Lutheran before roaring back for a 21-25, 24-26, 25-15, 25-16, 15-12 triumph.
“That goes back to the mental toughness that they have,” Back said of that win, “and that got developed a little bit because of the adversity that we had faced smack dab in the middle of the season.”
The Cougars then lost a four-set regional match at Hauser — but having earned an early-season victory over the same Indianapolis Tindley team that eliminated the Jets at semistate, they’re confident that they can take on anyone in Class A.
That belief is even stronger now that both state finalists, Christian Academy and Fort Wayne Blackhawk Christian, have been bumped up to Class 2A due to the IHSAA’s Success Factor.
“It’s really anyone’s this year,” Back said, “and I think we have the personnel and the experience now under our belts that we should make a fairly good run.”
Whether that run results in a state title or not, Greenwood Christian has quickly established itself as a threat. Having never posted a winning record before 2014, the team is 62-27 over the past three years.
The days of sneaking up on opponents are over, but the Cougars seem to be welcoming their turn as the target.
“I think it’s kind of fun, just being the small little school that has some power behind it,” senior Grace Peters said.
Center Grove Trojans
Coach: Maggie Harbison
Last year: 26-10, lost to Columbus East in Columbus East Regional
Who’s back: Emma Jones, Ellen LeMasters and Devynn Merriman, seniors; Taylor Dempewolf, junior; Ashley Eck, Madison Hammill, Anna Line and Calista Stafford, sophomores
Who’s gone: Macy Carrabine
New kids on the block: Amanda Emerson, junior; Grace Doggess, freshman
Outlook: While Carrabine, the Daily Journal’s Player of the Year, is now at the University of Denver, everyone else is back for Harbison’s second go-round at the helm. Setter Hammill was a Freshman All-American last fall, and she has an array of weapons at her disposal. Jones, who missed the end of last season with a knee injury, is back in the middle, and Merriman heads up an outstanding defense. Center Grove figures to be among the state’s top teams yet again, and the best in the area until someone proves otherwise.
Harbison says: “The good thing about the expectations is they’re not from me. The girls put those on themselves, so they’re more accountable. … If we stay healthy, I think we’ll have a really good year.”
Coach: Tina Bottorff
Last year: 16-16, lost to Greenwood Christian in Indianapolis Lutheran Sectional semifinal
Who’s back: Taylor Tatlock, junior; Paige Burton, Emily Chappelow, Haley Jones and Sophia Parmer, sophomores
Who’s gone: Mara Cox, Brianna Howard and Sydney Schlotter
New kids on the block: Lilly Clarkson, junior; Annelise Lollar, Gracie Long and Trinity Tatlock, freshmen
Outlook: The Lancers will be experiencing an extreme youth movement this season, with 11 sophomores and freshmen — and no seniors — on the roster. Taylor Tatlock, the lone returning upperclassman, will be asked to carry a heavy load, but Edinburgh figures to lean heavily on a deep sophomore class that got some varsity experience last year. Expectations are being tempered early on, with the hope being that the newcomers can develop quickly and offer some hope for the future.
Bottorff says: “We’re just taking it each set and trying to compete, and we’re going to analyze and see where we can improve.”
Franklin Grizzly Cubs
Coach: Roxanne Chapman
Last year: 25-7, lost to Center Grove in Greenwood Sectional final
Who’s back: Alyvia Sundheimer, senior; Isabell Mahin, Brooklyn Peddycord and Brooke Phillips, juniors; Abby DeArmitt, sophomore
Who’s gone: Rachel Kinney, Addie Payne and Abby Sewell
New kids on the block: Hillary Hensley, sophomore; Kabria Chapman and Kami Kelsey, freshmen
Outlook: The Grizzly Cubs took an unexpected hit when All-County hitter Rachel Kinney opted to sit out the high school season, but Chapman is confident that some athletic youngsters, including her daughter, can help fill the void. Phillips, a Lipscomb commit, returns as one of the state’s premier setters, and Sundheimer is a powerful force at the net. Franklin should again reign in the Mid-State Conference and pose the greatest threat to Center Grove in sectional play.
Chapman says: “This really opens the door for these younger kids to get some good experience. … The good thing is that the freshman group coming in has a different mindset, because they beat Center Grove in middle school last year.”
Coach: Amanda Ratliff
Last year: 8-23, lost to Martinsville in first round of Greenwood Sectional
Who’s back: Allyson Montgomery and Maggie Smith, seniors; Lauren Battinau, Gabriella Oakes, Lawson Roberts and Alyssa Stilley, juniors; Megan Johns, Joy Maze and Aaliyah McGowan, sophomores
Who’s gone: Camryn LaMonaca, Brittany Shellist and Emily Struewing
New kids on the block: Madelyn Limbach, junior
Outlook: Ravaged by injuries last season, the Woodmen have a good chunk of their lineup back and are hoping to reverse their fortunes. Johns and Oakes are being expected to fill the outside hitter spots vacated by LaMonaca and Struewing, and Limbach figures to handle most of the setting duties. Stilley is a third-year starter in the middle, and Battinau and Roberts also saw extensive action as sophomores last year. If healthy, Greenwood should improve greatly upon its 2016 record.
Ratliff says: “Last year, we struggled with numbers and injuries. Our big thing is we have a lot more flexibility with positions; we should be more competitive. … We’re on the upswing, I think.”
Greenwood Christian Cougars
Coach: Kayla Back
Last year: 24-11, lost to Hauser in Hauser Regional
Who’s back: Sierra Gilson, Sarah Mangan, Aubrey Odgers, Lexi Odgers and Grace Peters, seniors; Rylie Scott, junior; Jessica Miller, sophomore
Who’s gone: Katie Cruse
New kids on the block: Izzy Reed, freshman
Outlook: Though big dogs Center Grove and Franklin get most of the attention locally, nobody in the county outlasted the Cougars in last year’s postseason. With five senior starters back, GCA has its sights set on some lofty goals — including the school’s first state title in any sport. Lexi Odgers quarterbacks the offense as the setter, while her sister Aubrey holds down the defense from the libero spot. That defense, along with a lethal service game, help the Cougars compensate for a relative lack of size and make the team’s sky-high expectations seem very realistic.
Back says: “I think more people are going to be gunning for us this year than ever before, which is what we want. We want people to bring their best games for us. We don’t want easy games; we want to compete every single night.”
Indian Creek Braves
Coach: Jeff Fishburn
Last year: 12-14, lost to Cardinal Ritter in Cardinal Ritter Sectional final
Who’s back: Emma Dennis, Mallory Hogue, Morgan Hogue and Tori Travers, seniors; Malea Brownfield and Taylor Burkett, juniors
Who’s gone: Brittany Dugan, Avery Hensley and Sara Knight
New kids on the block: Madison Simmons, sophomore; Hailey Bramlett and Makena Hogue, freshmen
Outlook: Fishburn, who comes over from Greenwood Christian, believes he has the makings of a Class 3A contender in Trafalgar. The Braves have good returning hitters in Mallory and Morgan Hogue, a pair of strong middle blockers in Burkett and Dennis as well as a solid setter in Brownfield and a veteran libero in Travers. With some talented newcomers joining that group, the new coach is setting the bar high in 2017.
Fishburn says: “We’ve got a chance to be really good from the beginning. This is a team that can win 20 to 25 games right off the bat. There’s a sleeping giant here; I really believe that.”
Coach: Carolyn Ray
Last year: 2-27, lost to Franklin in Greenwood Sectional semifinal
Who’s back: Kennedy Syx, senior; Tabby Holzhausen, Sarah Staples, Rhyan Walden and Hannah Williams, juniors; Toni Joyner, sophomore
Who’s gone: Elaina Robards and Bailey Wood
Outlook: With the Warriors coming off of a two-win season, first-year coach Ray has come in and started completely from scratch. Joyner, a middle blocker as a freshman, is being moved to the setter position, where the hope is that she can become a versatile weapon. Ray also has high hopes for outside hitters Staples and Williams. Whiteland won’t become a powerhouse overnight, but it should be a far more competitive squad than it was last season.
Ray says: “We have pretty high expectations for them because of the progress we’ve made. … We’re really working on the mentality that losing isn’t okay anymore.”