Volleyball team has plenty of numbers, not lot of experience

Scott Swanson

Entering her eighth season as head coach of the Sweet Home volleyball program, Mary Hutchins has the largest group of girls who have tried out for the sport during her time at the helm.

But this is also the least experienced team she’s fielded “in six or seven years,” as the Huskies have lost five players in the last five years who are now all “main contributors” on college teams, and five of last year’s six starters.

Off to college volleyball are Jamie Seward, last year’s 4A Division Co-Player of the Year, who is starting her freshman year at Austin Peay University in Clarksville, Tenn., and Adaira Sleutel, who is plans to play volleyball and basketball as a freshman at Linn-Benton Community College. Another big contributor was Chloe Tyler, who will be swimming collegiately at Illinois State.

Sleutel joins Savannah Hutchins, Shelbey Nichol and Gracie Zanona, all former Huskies who helped Sweet Home to its first-ever state title in the spring of 2021, then went on to join a Roadrunners team that won the Northwest Athletics Conference title, which made them the top junior college team in the entire Pacific Northwest. All three are sophomores on this year’s LBCC team.

The other player in college from Mary Hutchins’ tenure as head coach is Ally Tow Schimdt, who is entering her senior season at Corban University, where she is expected to be a big contributor.

The bar’s been set pretty high in recent years.

Meanwhile, back in Sweet Home, this year’s team looks to be a work in progress – in every sense of that phrase.

The Huskies’ three rosters include 40 of the close to 50 girls who tried out for volleyball.

“They are very motivated and working extremely hard in practice,” said Hutchins, who is assisted by Shauna Baxter and Erika Evans. “It does present some challenges, because we kept as many girls as possible, which made for very large teams.

“We love the interest but we are working extra hard to make sure they all get the skill development needed. We have to be more creative with our practice plans to make sure everyone is getting quality touches on the ball.”

The sole returning starter for the Huskies is sophomore Kaylynn Mamac, who was a consistent performer for the Huskies as a freshman in the fall of 2021, helping them to a 12-6 season record and a state berth that ended with a quarterfinals loss to eventual champion Cascade in the Cougars’ gym.

Also back is junior Brooklyn Hanni, who got a lot of time on the court during last year’s varsity season, along with juniors

“We lost five out of six starters and four of those kids played consistently the whole game, so we are working to rebuild and hope to eventually regain our powerhouse status in the next year or two,” Hutchins said. “We have big big shoes to fill and we have our work cut out for us.

“I feel like several girls are trying to step up as leaders and we are just working out how that will look.  We are working hard on the mental toughness and confidence you need to play in the big moments and that’s something this group has not experienced yet on a consistent level, so we’re trying to apply some pressure in practice and build mental toughness through hard work and determination.”

Sweet Home also is missing the height it’s had consistently since Tow played her senior year with the underclassmen who have graduated over the past two years.

Hutchins said this year’s team is working hard to improve its speed on defense and develop “a consistent, in-system offense.

“If we can master those two things then it will change outcomes of games.

“We lack any real significant height, so we are working hard to increase our physical conditioning, speed, and jumping ability,” Hutchins said. “We have to really rely on working hard to improve as a team (emphasis), and will gain experience as we play games. We are working to develop chemistry in lineups and rotations and trust in how we will handle the ball on defense and offense.”

The Oregon West Conference has a different look this year, with the departure of Sisters, a consistent powerhouse at the 4A level, to the 3A division, and the addition of North Marion.

But Cascade won last year’s state title and Hutchins is expecting more of the same from the Cougars, who return all but one of last year’s starting lineup.

“A majority of Cascade’s starting lineup plays volleyball in the offseason in a club in Salem and at a high competition level, so they are a formidable opponent at this time,” Hutchins said, adding that Cascade is “currently struggling to find much competition in the games they are playing..”

Sweet Home is finding more eager opponents following the graduations of its star players, she noted.

“Suddenly, teams that were not as interested in playing us are willing to take the chance now, but I take that as a compliment to the program and we will do our best to present a challenge,” she said.

“Even though things look different this year, I know how hard work and consistency can pay off and I still believe the future is bright in Sweet Home for volleyball. 

“We had 90 kids attend our youth camp and there is plenty of interest in volleyball. I am excited for the challenge of rebuilding and we are excited about the kids we have in the program.

In addition to Mamac and Hanni, this year’s varsity roster includes seniors Zoey Erevia, Makayla Guthrie and Avery Nelson, juniors Makennah Deckard, Adi Graber, Bayless Mark, Emily Ramussen, Stephanie Saultz, Natalie Summers and Kaylene Zajic; and sophomore Tiara Reynolds.

“We are hoping to go out there and surprise some people this season and the kids are putting in long hours at the gym to step up to present a challenge to teams.

“These girls showed up this summer to open gyms and worked hard to improve their skills. We will keep pushing in practice and building fundamentally strong players.”