In a sport that has only six players on the court at a time, the loss of eight seniors can create a Grand Canyon-like void in a volleyball team’s expectations for the coming year.
But Hillsboro High School coach Sandy Arnold has peered into the abyss and sees some potentially scenic discoveries.
“The holes are there, positions are open, so people have a shot,” said Arnold, whose Trojans went 31-6 last season to raise her four-year record at HHS to 106-35. “I’m not leaving anybody out, they all have a chance.”
Four at the core
To help offset the departed seniors, Arnold returns a core of four solid contributors.
Heading that list is junior Dakota Kaufman (6-foot-0), a unanimous all-league selection last year at outside hitter. She’s joined by junior setter Candace Weinbrenner (5-4), and front-line seniors Tiffany Rooker (5-7) and Kassidi Luthi (5-10).
“They’re the only ones who know what varsity experience is,” Arnold said of the four. “That’s a good thing, but they’re going to have to be patient bringing these other kids along and letting them get their feet wet in the varsity experience. I think they will be.”
Arnold’s “Core Four” bring a lot to the table, starting with Kaufman.
“She’ll obviously be a force in the front,” Arnold said. “One of the things we have to be careful of is we can’t go to her nonstop because they’ll know what we’re doing. We’re going to have to find ways to use her differently, but we also have to find some more players who can hit the ball.”
Hitting and blocking aren’t Kaufman’s only weapons.
“Dakota has a very strong serve,” Arnold said. “I’d like to get that a little more consistent this year, and I’d like her to be able to place the ball with the jump serve that she has, not just serve it. She’s talented and she can do it.”
Arnold sees Weinbrenner as the quarterback of the team.
“She’s looked really good at camp and at practice,” Arnold said or her setter. “Candace is very smart and has a great work ethic. She’s going to help us out tremendously.
“She’s got a good serve—she’s one of those who can spot serve. Over camp, she started working on a jump serve and picked it up within a day or two.”
Rooker, who rotated into the front line last year, has proven to be a good all-round player, according to Arnold.
“She’s probably one of the best passers on the team, she’s a nice solid hitter. She’s a little short as far as blocking, but she gets up and at least deflects the ball and slows it down. A lot of blocking is timing anyway. If we can get that channeled right, we’ll be OK.”
Rooker may play the full rotation this year.
“She didn’t serve a lot and didn’t play a lot of back row last year, but I don’t see that as a problem to her stepping right in there. I really would like to have her on the court as a leader.”
Luthi, meanwhile, has stepped up her game as she begins her senior year, according to the coach.
“Kassidi is the team clown, but she has probably been one of our most intense girls the last few days of practice—I’ve been very pleased with her,” Arnold said. “She’s really doing a great job, she’s a vocal leader.”
With her height, Luthi will be a presence on the front row, but she also may complete the full rotation through the back row.
“We’ll have to have a lot more practice to find out, but it’s possible that she could play back row,” Arnold said. “Her hitting has improved tremendously. She’s more confident with herself.”
Filling the gaps
Because the competition for the remaining spots is wide open, Arnold declined to speculate on the other potential starters. She did say the remaining seniors and juniors will be pushed by some promising underclassmen for playing time.
Arnold’s roster is smaller this year, with 22 athletes instead of the usual 28 to 30. Nine of those athletes are freshmen.
“You hope that they stick with it because they could really do some good things,” Arnold said of her freshmen. “There are some talented girls in that class, very fundamentally sound.”
One of the biggest question marks for Arnold is how her back row will develop, especially in the passing game. For the past three years, she relied on the same three players to do the job—but they’ve all graduated.
“I just think of those three as being the back row,” Arnold said. “That’s a great tribute to them, but I’ve got to have some other girls step up. If we don’t find some people who can pass the volleyball, we won’t be able to run anything.”
As a result, passing has been a point of emphasis in the preseason.
“We are working on that,” Arnold said. “They’re going to be sick of some of the drills we’re doing. We’ve got some talented girls, but it all starts with that stinking pass, and if we don’t have it, volleyball’s pretty hard to play.”
Work in progress
Arnold likes her team’s energy level in the early going.
“We’ve really picked up the intensity of practice this year,” she said. “I hope we can keep that going throughout the season and keep building on it.”
Because of the question marks, though, Arnold said this year’s team may be a work in progress at the start.
“One of the things we talked about was that it’s not necessarily how we start, but how we finish,” Arnold said. “It could be a bit of a slow start. That’s frustrating for a coach, but not necessarily a bad thing. I’d rather be better at the end of the year.”
Arnold said it’s hard to know how her squad will match up in league play this year.
“I almost think we could be fairly even throughout the league this year,” she said. “I know there’s a lot of schools that return good athletes. Marion has good athletes coming back—they’re going to be pretty good. Hesston has good athletes coming back. Hoisington just has a strong program and Nickerson had a really good run toward the end of the season and I think they have some of those girls coming back.
“I think it’s kind of open.”
Arnold said it will work to her team’s advantage that matches count toward the league standings the final time the two schools meet during the season.
“Hopefully, by that point we will have gotten some of the questions out of the way, plus we’ll start to jell in terms of what we’re doing and who’s playing where,” she said.
For the first time since the MCAA initiated its preseason tournament, the Trojans will gain some competitive experience before the Sept. 6 showdown in Marion. Hillsboro is scheduled to host a triangular meet with Claflin and Lyons on Tuesday, Sept. 2.
“That preseason tournament always scares me just because you don’t know what your kids are ready for, or if you have everything covered,” Arnold said. “But it’s also good because it helps you know what you need to work on right away.
“Maybe that’s what that Tuesday night (triangular) will do for us. Maybe we’ll see somethings we can work on before we get to the tournament.”
In addition to the league’s preseason event, the Trojans will again participate in two perennially tough tournaments: the Canton-Galva Invitational on Oct. 4 and their own Trojan Invitational on Oct. 18.