Volleyball preview: Players bring months of preparation to the court

Scott Swanson

This year’s focus for the Sweet Home volleyball program is: finishing.

That’s as in, putting opponents away rather than getting off to a promising start in matches and then letting the other team back in and watching it slip away with a win.

“It’s going to be mental toughness,” said second-year Head Coach Mary Hutchins.

The Huskies are coming off a tie with Junction City for fourth place in the Sky-Em Conference (4-6 in league, 6-11 overall) last year in what ended up to be a tough season all around, starting with a month of games on the road. They didn’t play at home until the end of September, and they only had five home matches – total. The Huskies were ranked 24th in the state going into the final weeks of the season despite a 2-5 league mark, mainly due to the quality of the teams they played and the fact that they played so often on the road.

“We had a tough schedule last year,” Hutchins said. “I don’t want to make excuses, but it was a tough row to hoe.”

Sweet Home wound up on the losing end of close scores in most of its matches, even against top competition, she noted.

This year’s schedule looks a lot more down-home, to put it bluntly, compared to last.

After opening their season at Douglas on Thursday, Sept. 1, the Huskies host Stayton on Sept. 6 and Newport on Sept. 8.

There are other reasons for Hutchins to be optimistic, though.

“We had an amazing summer,” she said. “We’ve had amazing attendance at our open gyms – probably the best I’ve seen in the last five years. The girls have a high level of commitment, excitement about volleyball.”

Out this year are 32 girls, four of them returnees from last year’s varsity, from which the Huskies lost seven players.

Senior Madi Barringer is the most experienced, having played varsity since she was a freshman.

“She’s in the best shape I’ve ever seen her,” said Hutchins of the middle blocker. “She’s very motivated. She worked hard all summer.”

Also back are junior twin towers Kayley Lopez and Ally Tow, both Second Team All-League picks from last year.

Tow, an outside hitter, is a three-sport athlete for the Huskies in softball and girls basketball and is “very athletic,” Hutchins said. “She’s very competitive. We’re expecting a lot out of her and the other two this year.”

Lopez, like Tow and Barringer, started as a freshman and provides a daunting presence in the middle.

“We expect her to be a force at the net,” Hutchins said. “A lot of blocks, just like last year.”

She said all three are leaders on the court and she wants them to “use their experience to help the team.”

Three seniors, five juniors and one sophomore move up from the junior varsity: Kelika Aiona, Kylie Armstrong, Sunhee Bitter, Brianna Hoffman, Samantha Hutchins, Gracie Olson, Natasha Rasmussen, Caylie Trewin and Alana VanEck.

Clearly, the Huskies are a young team.

“We have new setters, so we’re working on our setters and hitters finding each other,” Hutchins said. “We’re working on that connection, timing.”

One plus for Sweet Home is a growing club volleyball program that included many of this year’s players and extends down to fifth grade – building for the future. Those extra 55 to 65 games – 10 tournaments, during the five-month club season that starts in November, make a difference and it’s really a necessity right now, when volleyball is in a surge of popularity, she said.

“Most of the teams we are playing primarily consist of kids who play club volleyball,” she said.

“Sisters’ whole team just got done playing together all summer,” she said of the Outlaws, who finished second in state, behind Banks, last year.

Rounding out the Sweet Home rosters are junior varsity team members under Coach Shawna Baxter: Aliya Boss, Ria Chiba, Samantha Coats, Kate Hawken, Kirdy Koehne, Marissa Kurtz, Allison Miner, Hailey Silver, Kennedi Waldrop and Rose Wingo.

Junior Varsity 2 members, under Coach Kari Housen, are: Allison Brown, Pacience Christman, Anna Coleman, Aizlin Frantz, Taylor Goodwin, Zoe James, Katie Kurtz, Alysa Marler, Hannah Powell and Lexi Schilling.

Hutchins predicted that the Sky-Em League will be tough – as usual.

Sisters is once again the favorite, but she also expects Cottage Grove, which finished second in league, and Sutherlin, which made state as well from the third-place spot, to be teams to beat.

“It’s a very tough league. Our goal is to break into the top half this year.”

That’s why the Huskies are focusing on finishing.

“We took games off many teams that went to state last year and we couldn’t finish,” Hutchins said. “We’re definitely working on finishing strong, playing with intensity all the way through the match.

“We’re basically a brand new team. We’re just looking for teamwork on and off the court. I’ve talked to them a lot. I feel like we have all the components now. We just have to put it together and make it work.”