Derrick Webb, Staff Writer
With volleyball season peeking around the corner, all local teams are getting ready for what they hope will be a successful year at the net.
Here’s a look at Chillicothe and Zane Trace as the countdown to the first serve of the season begins to heat up.
Head coach: Andrew Vitatoe, third season
2018 record: 13-10
2018 postseason finish: 3-0 loss to Logan (12-25, 13-25, 18-25) in Division I sectional semifinal
To be the best, you have to beat the best … and if you’re in the Frontier Athletic Conference, that means dethroning the back-to-back conference champion Chillicothe Cavaliers.
Led by a talented group of seniors last fall, the Cavaliers won their second straight FAC title — the program’s fourth consecutive conference crown dating back to its time in the South Central Ohio League — with a 9-1 mark against league foes.
That group of five seniors, led by reigning FAC Player of the Year Jessa Mickey, is now gone, which means coach Andrew Vitatoe’s group is now taking applications to fill multiple roles.
Nevertheless, Vitatoe still believes his group enters this fall as one of the league favorites.
“We will be a younger team this year, but we are on track to have a lot of depth across the program,” Vitatoe said. “We have four returning varsity players in Sophie Fulkerson, Lauren Henry, Stephanie Hirsch and Payton McBee.”
Of those four, Fulkerson has the longest track record of success. Over her first two seasons, Fulkerson tallied 339 kills, 91 aces and 381 digs. Last fall, she was on pace to have her best season yet but an injury forced her to sit out for much of the season.
This year, she’s back and, according to Vitatote, looks better than ever.
“Sophie is returning after her shoulder injury last season and seems to be even stronger with all of the physical therapy she has done during the year,” he said.
That’s welcome news for Cavalier fans.
As for the help around Fulkerson, McBee is the next imperative piece of the puzzle. The senior will be the most experienced defensive specialist on the team and looks to step into a leadership role.
Henry, a senior, and Hirsch, a junior, will also play an important role. That duo combined for 96 kills, 15 aces, 20 blocks and 119 digs last season. You can expect those numbers to rise exponentially.
MORE: Staying Positive: Chillicothe’s Sophie Fulkerson has used season-ending injury to learn valuable life lessons
Having said all that, as alluded to earlier, the Cavaliers will have holes to fill. No vacant spot is bigger than the team’s setter, a spot that graduated Victoria Vitatoe occupied in 2018. Chillicothe will also be looking for players who can produce at the net … Mickey’s team-high 288 kills, alongside graduated Maddie Coppel’s 153, will have to be made up for in some way.
But Vitatoe is confident his girls will get it done. This summer, he’s seen potential in the gym.
“We have several players from JV that are stepping up to fill in the spots left by a very large senior class. During the Circleville Summer Tournament, we were able to experiment with ten different lineups during the day,” he said. “That really helped us see what some of our younger players could do in actual game situations.”
While this year’s group could experience growing pains at times, they’ll have to do so against a handful of quality non-conference opponents including the likes of Unioto, Logan and Lancaster.
Chillicothe’s first contest is scheduled for Aug. 17, a tri-match at Marysville High School.
“Even with a younger varsity team, we feel we can defend our FAC title from the past two seasons,” Vitatoe said. “After spending two years trying to get more Division I teams on our schedule, the OHSAA has reclassified us as a Division II school again. Our goal is to use our Division I opponents we have scheduled this year to prepare us for a deep run in the postseason.”
Head coach: Cyndi Davis, third season
2018 record: 19-6
2018 postseason finish: 3-0 loss to Southeastern (12-25, 13-25, 22-25) in Division III district final
If you’re looking for a simple outlook on Zane Trace this season, it’s the same as it always is: the Pioneers are going to be tough to beat.
One year removed from a district final appearance, Zane Trace looks to make it back to that level … and further. Head coach Cyndi Davis has led the Pioneers to an overall record of 28-21 during her two seasons and, in each year, her girls have made significant strides.
This fall, she’ll rely on a cast of juniors to help her program take the next step forward.
“I have Alli Bennett, Laynee Hill, Hannah Hale and Elizabeth Harber, who was our libero last year, returning,” Davis said. “They’ve played since they were freshmen at the varsity level. Those juniors, and we have Lexi Betts that moved into the district this year, is also a junior. That group will be my leaders.”
Out of that group, Bennett posted the best numbers as a sophomore, totaling 174 kills, 19 aces and 251 digs. She’ll be expected to boost those numbers in a substantial way while acting as the team’s setter, taking over for Maddie Rann.
“Alli will be the leader of that group. She’s my setter and one of my most powerful hitters,” Davis said. “I’m going to expect a lot out of that group, just like I always have. In the SVC, you have to bring it every single day.”
Hale, Hill and Harber are also imperative … especially on the defensive end. Together, that group posted 131 kills, 45 service aces, 33 blocks, 512 digs and 71 assists.
Also important to the team’s success will be 5-foot-9 sophomore Emily Allen, who will stand tall in the middle. Allen has progressed significantly since last season, a warning to ZT’s opponents. As a freshman, she had 28 kills and 21 blocks.
MORE: Q&A: Zane Trace’s Laynee Hill discusses upcoming season, young talent and on-court experience
“Last year, [Allen] was a little intimidated. She was a freshman and that comes with the territory,” Davis said. “She’s matured, she’s got a lot more confidence and her blocking power is just tremendous. She’ll be playing that middle blocker position and we expect a lot out of her.”
A name under the radar will be incoming freshman Lexi Scott, who Davis says will make an immediate impact.
“Lexi Scott is going to come in and contribute,” Davis said. “She’s going to have the role of an outside hitter as a freshman and she can hold her own. Good things will come from her.”
Those names, and others who are able to step into important roles, will be the nucleus that makes or breaks this year’s version of the Pioneers.
“We’ve worked hard. We’ve been in the gym since March,” Davis said. “I think coming in and work, and doing that everyday … you’ve got to get out there and compete. You have to give it your all. If you can walk off the court and say, ‘You know what, I gave it my all,’ that’s all we ask. There shouldn’t be a reason why we don’t take a district title this year.”
The Pioneers start their season on Aug. 22 at New Hope Christian Academy.