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August 15, 2012

Gap closing for Big Four volleyball teams

TERRE HAUTE — It was hard to argue last season that Northview wasn’t the best high school volleyball team in the Wabash Valley.

Matching a school record for victories in a 31-4 season, the Knights had nearly as many wins as their three Vigo County neighbors combined.

Terre Haute North, Terre Haute South and West Vigo all expect to close that gap this year; North will get a crack at the Knights on Thursday.

But although Northview had two seniors graduate, one of them a Division I player, it has three freshmen with credentials to make the Knights look just as good or better themselves. The target, in other words, is still in Clay County.

n Northview — A sectional semifinal loss to host Martinsville was about the only downside to the season for coach Scott McDonald’s team a year ago, and the pieces seem to be in place for the Knights to have a chance to cross that item off their list of things to do this fall.

Six-foot senior Brylie Riddell has been one of the best players in the Valley the past three years, and 5-11 junior Shelbi Morris and 5-9 sophomore McKenzi Kumpf are also strong and experienced up front. Taylor Hess, a 5-7 sophomore, returns as one of the Northview setters, and 5-4 junior Audrey Clark inherits the libero position from Ashlen Buck, now at Indiana State.

More experience is available in 5-8 senior Hannah Willocks, 5-7 senior Alexus Bex and 6-1 sophomore Mikayla Rowan. Then come three freshmen, all with a wealth of experience in club volleyball, who never lost a match in middle school — 5-5 Ashley Heck, 5-8 Madison McDonald (the coach’s daughter) and 6-0 Morgan Stearley.

“Last year we tied the school record [for wins],” McDonald said recently. “We’d like to break that [record] and win a sectional, but a lot of things have to happen first.

“Ashlen [Buck] and [setter Briana] Cook did a good job [before graduating after last season]; Ashlen was the mainstay of our defense,” the coach added. “But Audrey Clark has had a great summer, and Heck is ready to step right in [as a defensive specialist].”

n Terre Haute North — Last year’s 17-14 mark was the fifth winning season in a row for the Patriots, and that came in what coach Kris Painter feared might be a rebuilding year. She doesn’t have that fear this year.

“We’ve had a really good summer,” Painter noted, “and an awful lot of the meat of our team is back from last year … 11 of our 12 played club ball all winter.”

North’s two senior regulars back are a pair of outside hitters, 5-7 Danielle Krupa (who plays bigger than that) and 5-9 Natalie Lewis. Juniors with plenty of experience are 5-9 setter Anna Taylor, 5-6 defensive specialist Maddy Howes and 5-10 right-side hitter Brianna Burgess. Two sophomores, 6-0 middle Mandee Eberle and 5-6 defender Kristen Mauer, also played regularly a year ago.

Shelby Lawler, a 5-4 senior, has some varsity experience, while 5-4 senior Emily New, 5-7 junior Lauren Comer and 5-8 junior Kaylee Sanders move up from the junior varsity. And 5-11 Valerie Lewis is a freshman who will play.

“I thought last year was a building year, so [a winning record] was what we were happy about,” Painter said.

Best part about the 2012 Patriots? “They are very unselfish,” Painter added. “They play together and they play for each other.”

n Terre Haute South — Coach Madison Minnick’s Braves continue to play the toughest schedule in the Wabash Valley, a holdover from the days when South turned out Division I 6-footers by the handful, and a young team paid for that schedule with a 10-20 record a year ago.

There were moments, including the continuation of a winning streak against North, when the Braves showed their potential. There will be more opportunities this year.

“Last year we had no seniors; we could have returned all 12,” Minnick noted recently, after pointing out a significant move-away and a couple of other non-graduation losses. “This year we were supposed to have a lore more experience — and we’re even younger than last year.”

The coach didn’t sound all that unhappy about the situation, however, so it might not be wise to count the Braves out just yet.

Most experienced of the Braves are 5-7 senior setter Ashley Bazier, 5-10 senior middle Brittney Pink and 5-6 junior libero Marissa Coutinho, all of whom are regulars for at least the third year. Maddie Callahan, a 5-10 sophomore outside hitter, was a freshman regular last year, and 5-5 senior defensive specialist Saya Harazaki is a returning starter too.

Kaitlynn Gilmore, a 5-7 junior, provides a setter and defensive specialist with some experience, and 6-0 junior right-side hitter Bailee Williams and 5-6 outside hitter Liz Weber also have varsity time. Three freshmen — 5-8 outside Emma Burke, 5-4 defender Riley Davis and 5-11 middle Meghan Etling — will also challenge for time on the floor.

“Everyone’s working really hard … our expectation is positive in terms of skill level and work ethic,” Minnick said.

Last year’s good moments were almost wiped out of memory by the Braves’ sectional loss to Plainfield, the coach added. “That sectional is still ingrained in eight of these girls,” Minnick said.

n West Vigo — Cami Readinger knows what the Braves are feeling in terms of a sectional performance that left a bad taste. The Vikings collapsed in their lone tournament game a year ago thanks to a crisis of confidence that was all too typical of their 7-19 season.

But while the Vikings don’t return what you might call stars from that team, they have some size and some athleticism. Readinger hopes she sees a team that might grow together.

“For the first time, depth-wise, we’re good,” the coach noted recently. “We have strong hitters in every rotation. We’re able to use a right-side [hitter] this year, keeping our setters in the back row … we’re going to try to mix it up a little.”

West Vigo’s four seniors are 5-3 setter Carlie Eldredge, 5-4 libero Briana Marino, 5-3 defensive specialist Taylor Otte and 5-11 outside hitter Ashley Wilson. All were in the regular lineup a year ago except Marino, who missed the season with an injury.

Among the juniors, 5-11 middle Lexus Elkins and 5-8 defender Jordynn Scott return as regulars and 5-11 middle Shelby Byerly, 5-8 defender Hannah Barton and 5-8 right-side hitter Morgan Robertson are also available. More size is available from 5-11 sophomore Shyanne Elkins, a junior varsity player last year; 5-7 freshman Kylie Cardinal can both set and play the right side.

Competition for playing time is expected to be a little more intense this year too, Readinger indicated.

“The juniors are really stepping it up a lot,” she said, “and our junior varsity should be good too.”

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