EATON — Last season was a stellar one for the Eaton Eagles volleyball team. They earned a share of the Southwestern Buckeye League Southwestern Division championship, then won the district championship before falling to The Plains-Athens in the regional semifinals.
It was Eaton’s first conference trophy since 2003, and the ladies plan on adding more to the school’s trophy case.
Third-year coach Parker Fields faces a daunting task of replacing five of six All-SWBL Southwestern players from the 2015 team, and eight graduating seniors. The team was 23-4 and 11-1 in SWBl competition.
Those who graduated from the championship team included first-team All-SWBL Julia Titus; second-team All-SWBL players Brittany George and Jackie McCafferty; and honorable mention players Meghan Puckett and Brandy Sittloh.
“We won so much last year with a team full of tons of experience,” said Fields. “That group got us rolling as a program and we are excited to carry on the building blocks they laid down. We look to move on to create our legacy this year and in the years to come.”
Some good news: third-team All-State senior setter Emma McKinney returns, and will be a solid force for the team. She, along with senior outside hitter Stacia Weathington, will be looked upon to provide the leadership which goes with being seniors.
“Emma’s been a leader for the team, even when she was just a junior last year,” said Fields. “She knows the offense and she will do equally well this year. Weathington will be back, even though she didn’t see a whole lot of playing time. But she’s a veteran and she knows the system well.”
Junior Ariel Richardson is a returning starter who is expected to play in all six rotations for the team.
McKinney is a senior captain for the Lady Eagles.
“Last season, we had a lot of returning talent,” McKinney said. “This year, we’ve improved a lot over the summer with the newer, younger girls. I think this season, we are going to shock people, because people will think we won’t be as strong as last year. It’s pressure on us because we have a bullseye on our backs — but we know this and we expect to give it our best and give our opponents a challenge in every game.”
Despite having only three lettermen returning, Fields has nine sophomores he feels confident about.
“We are young and sophomore-heavy, but the good news is, we are ahead of where we thought we would be at this point in the game,” he said.
Those sophomores include Ava Miller, Kelsey Waggoner, Becca Mowen, Annika Gels, Maley Tinstman, Courtney Giffen, Alysa Sorrell, Logan Unger, and Kayla Conley.
“Becca Mowen is an outsider with size and athleticism,” Fields said. “Few people can match her competitiveness, and we are eager to see how well she can play and do a lot of things for us. Maley Tinstman will be our backup setter. She works harder than most to improve her game and she is committed.
“Two middles we are eager about are Kelsey Waggoner and Ava Miller — they have experience and could do some things that last year’s team could not do. Ava’s leaping ability is astounding — but those two need to understand that playing in the middle is non-stop and they need to step-up.”
Fields said the team has “a slew of defensive specialists who with experience will just get better and better.”
“Our challenge this season will be staying in every point and being mentally tough on a consistent basis,” Fields continued. “We will be strong defensively and in the setting game. I’m looking for high productivity at the pins, and a steady improvement from our sophomore middles.
“This team has made it a goal to get better every time they step onto the court, and without a doubt, they have done that,” Fields said. “We aren’t a super-powerful team that will drive the ball down your throat, but if we can control the ball, make shots and hit seams, communicate effectively, and keep improving our chemistry, we should be pretty strong come October.”
“If we can get the game to slow down, and control the pace of each match, then we have a shot to compete for a league championship, and possibly make a run in the tournament,” Fields added.
“I’m looking to try and avoid that roller coaster type season that is typical of a sophomore-heavy team,” Fields said. “The girls recognize that they need to improve upon some things and mature a little quicker than most experienced teams when it comes to that aspect of the game, and I believe they have accepted the challenge.”
On Tuesday, Aug. 23, the Eaton volleyball team faces off against SWBL Buckeye Division foe Dixie for the season’s home opener.
Reach Oliver Sanders at 937-683-4062 or on Twitter @osanders_RH