Volleyball: Can talented freshmen help Sweet Home to next level?

Scott Swanson

Will this be the year the Sweet Home volleyball team finally breaks through into the top echelon of the extremely competitive Sky-Em Conference?

That’s the question for coaches, players and fans as the Huskies enter the 2017 season with three established veterans and an influx of experienced youngsters who could prove to be the wave of the future.

Sweet Home is coming off a fourth-place league finish last season, which ended with a play-in loss at Douglas in the Huskies’ first playoff appearance in five years.

Though Madi Barringer and Gracie Olson have graduated, the Huskies return twin-tower seniors Ally Tow and Kayley Lopez, both three-year letter winners, and junior setter Sunhee Bitter. They will be joined by a supporting cast of Kylie Armstrong, Caylie Trewin, Kelika Aiona and Samantha Hutchins, all seniors, and junior Kate Hawken, all of whom spent time on the varsity last year.

“We’re returning a strong senior class,” said Head Coach Mary Hutchins, entering her third year at the helm.

“Ally and Kayley both played on club teams. They both have lots of volleyball intelligence.

“They have height and athleticism and three years of varsity experience.

“Sunhee is very consistent. She’s a great, quiet leader on the court, with an amazing work ethic and attitude.”

What’s new for Sweet Home is an influx of players from a junior high eighth-grade squad that went undefeated, most of whom also have put in time in tournament volleyball over the past few years. One of Sweet Home’s two 14-and-under teams finished the regular club season, which ended in April, ranked seventh out of 148 teams in the Columbia Empire Volleyball Association.

“Club volleyball has really exploded and it has increased kids’ court time and ability, and game experience,” Hutchins said. “We have a lot of kids with a lot of court experience this year. Our program is getting stronger.”

Rounding out this year’s team going into the new season are senior Rose Wingo and freshmen Bailee Hartsook, Savannah Hutchins, Shelbey Nichol and Graci Zanona.

The question for the Huskies is how they match up with the other teams in the league, led by Sisters, which won last year’s state championship.

The Outlaws are led by 6-1 senior Hawley Harrer, who verbally committed to UCLA as a sophomore and has been named to the USA National A1 Training team, one of 34 players selected from across the country.

“Our league is very competitive,” Hutchins said. “Extremely tough. A lot of girls play most of the year.

“Most of the teams did not graduate very many seniors. We have the state champions in our league. Cottage Grove has a bunch of young, talented girls that play in a club in Eugene.

“I know Junction City and Sutherlin return all their main players.”

The level of competition in the league was reflected in last year’s record. The Huskies went 6-4 in pre-league, then 4-6 in league, though the loss of Lopez to an injury late in the season didn’t help them.

Sweet Home will pick up, in a sense, where it left off, hosting Douglas at 6 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 31.

Hutchins said the Huskies’ goal is to “compete” in the Sky-Em League. “I’d like to finish in the top three. We want to break out of that fourth-place spot.”

That’s not just at the varsity level, she said.

“Our JV and JV2 teams both look strong. So we’d like to compete aggressively at every level.”

“We’re getting a lot of young, hungry kids with a lot of court experience, and some who have played at a higher level, competitively, than we’ve been able to play in the past. It’s nice because we’re at a point where all the kids in the gym are pushing each other and creating great competition in practice.”