Volleyball: Defending state champs start season with question marks

Scott Swanson

What do you do after you’ve just won the first-ever state championship for your school, and then lost eight decorated seniors to graduation?

Welcome to the world of Coach Mary Hutchins and the Huskies, who started their first “normal” season in two years this week.

“It feels like it was four months ago, which it was,” Hutchins said of Sweet Home’s championship season, in which the Huskies went 14-1 to win it all in a shortened schedule. “There has not been a lot of turnaround time, which was new, especially because we had those seniors graduating.”

However, despite the departures of Bailee Hartsook to Western Oregon University; Savannah Hutchins, Shelbey Nichol and Graci Zanona to Linn-Benton Community College; and Teja Abbott to Bushnell University’s (formerly Northwest Christian University) new beach volleyball program; along with the loss to graduation of Kathryn Hanni, Maddee Housen, and Emily Windom, all of whom were key contributors to the state title, the Huskies’ cupboard certainly is not bare.

“We have 32 girls out for volleyball,” Mary Hutchins said, adding that many played club volleyball as well. “It feels like it was four months ago, which it was. There was not a lot of turnaround. It actually feels like there wasn’t any time off.”

The Huskies were not idle, she said. Between graduation activities and club volleyball, they stayed busy and, with an opening match at home against Gladstone Tuesday evening, Aug. 31, on the horizon, they were busy last week “reconfiguring,” as Hutchins put it.

“We did lose eight seniors. It’s obvious,” she said. “We have a lot of big shoes to fill. We lost kids who had four years of varsity experience and a lot of experience playing under pressure at the higher levels at state.”

That said, the Huskies return three veteran seniors who also have extensive varsity experience: Adaira Sleutel-Burger, Jamie Seward and Chloe Tyler. The three were regulars in last year’s varsity lineup, and Hutchins said they will be depended upon for leadership as Sweet Home takes up defense of its title.

“We’re expecting them to take a big role in how we do this season,” she said.

The good news is that, if the state stays out of the way, the schedule should be fairly normal, compared to last year’s abbreviated version.

In addition to their normal home-and-away meetings with the six other Oregon West Conference teams, Sweet Home will play in the Cascade and Sisters tournaments, which will give the Huskies exposure to some of the better teams in the 4A and 3A divisions.

Hutchins said that’s important.

“We have all these freshmen kids who didn’t have sports last year, and we have sophomores who didn’t get the normal high-school experience. We’re trying to bring back as much of the normalcy of the high-school season as possible,” she said.

Other than the three returnees, though, all the faces will be different in the varsity lineup, and Hutchins said that she plans to keep things “fairly fluid” as she tries players out in different situations to come up with the best possible lineup.

Completing the varsity lineup to start the season are: Taryn Abbott, Brooke Dodge, Makayla Guthrie, Brooklynn Hanni, Avery Nelson and Kailee Pepple.

Rounding out the team will be Riley Anderson, Mariah Bradley, Angel Cordes, Kaelynn Cupp, Maykennah Deckard, Jocelyn Fairchild, Madison Ferebee, Adisen Graber, Kadence Kistner, Bayless Mark, Timber Nobles, Alyssa Peterson, Emily Rasmussen, Tiara Reynolds, Stephanie Saultz, Sophia Stock, Natalie Summers and Kaylene Zajic.

Hutchins said she isn’t sure yet who will play on which team, so she will be experimenting with various lineups and allowing for growth.

“We’re definitely going to be maximizing playing time while we’re getting kids ready for the varsity level,” she said.

“I feel like we have a really vibrant, thriving program. I feel like there’s kids who will make a lot of growth this year. I’m really excited about that and I’m excited they will have a full season.”

She said the level of commitment from players and their families has been encouraging.

“The kids are super-motivated and they came to all of our open gyms this summer,” she said. “There’s a lot of enthusiasm and they love the sport. I’m excited for the future of the program, with so many kids involved, just putting the extra time in.”

Varsity action will be different for the newcomers, and Hutchins said she plans to put players in positions that might be new to them as she experiments with lineups.

“I feel like we have the components; we just need to execute under pressure, work on executing consistently,” she said.

The OWC looks as formidable as usual, with both Philomath and Sisters, in particular, back with experienced clubs.

“Philomath is basically returning the whole team and Sisters has a pretty good squad coming back,” Hutchins said, noting that she is “cautiously optimistic.”

“We’ll have to get there and see what we can do. Our goal every year is to make it to state.”