When first-year Owen volleyball head coach Tia Vasko took the court for her team’s first home game this season, the setting was a bit surreal. After all, the 23-year-old Owen graduate played on the Warlassies softball team just four years ago.
But Vasko, the school’s fourth volleyball coach in as many seasons, has settled into her role and has the team pointed in the right direction. And there was only one direction to go - up.
Last year the Warlassies finished with a 1-19 record before their head coach accepted a teaching position at a different school. Owen began searching for a replacement. Vasko was immediately interested.
“I coached the junior varsity team last year and worked as an assistant with this team, so I had a pretty good relationship with a lot of the girls,” she said. “I was really interested in coaching them again.”
The team Vasko inherited featured four seniors, four juniors and two sophomores. Vasko rounded her roster out with two freshmen, products of the program at Owen Middle School.
Heading into the season, the group’s chemistry became Vasko’s top priority. “Communication is something that the team has been working on since last season,” she said. “I want them talking to each other every time the ball comes their way.”
Vasko points to a recent loss against conference foe Polk as an example of her team’s progress. “They were communicating constantly against Polk,” she said. “That’s what I’m looking for from them right now.”
The season is still young, but with a victory over Mitchell High, Vasko has already matched the team’s wins from a year ago. Still, her team is working to improve.
“We’re also working on footwork,” Vasko said. “We need to keep our feet moving so we can be in position when the ball is up.”
Among the leaders on the Owen team is senior Emily Price, who has been a member of the varsity team since her freshman year. Vasko is Price’s fourth coach in as many years. That has been “tough,” Price said.
Price has sought out - and received - Vasko’s analysis and advice, feedback she credits with her improvement after years of constant transition. “I’ve kind of taken what all four coaches have given me in the four years into one package,” she said.
Price has become a much more vocal leader than she has been in the past.
“Knowing that I’m counted on to talk to the younger players has even made me better with being a leader outside of volleyball,” she said. “As a captain this year, I’ve wanted us to focus more on team-building and communication. We’ve also had more team meetings this year.”
Team chemistry has improved significantly under Vasko, Price believes.
“We just wanted to keep things light with the freshmen coming into the team this year,” she said. “We want everyone working together toward the same goal of reaching our full potential as a team.”
That approach has allowed the team’s two freshmen - Chesney Gardner and Kathryn Wilkos - to develop.
Gardner, a team captain for the middle school team last season, has had to adjust to being a young player on the team this year.
“When you step into something new, it takes some adjusting,” she said. “Everything was completely new to me. But coming into this team the older players really accepted us.”
Vasko promoted a sense of camaraderie between younger and older players early in the summer workouts, according to Gardner.
“She made sure that we were pairing up with seniors during drills and everybody was getting to know each other,” she said.
Vasko is encouraging her players to continue focusing on improving, both individually and as a team, throughout season. She sees the senior leadership on this year’s team and a core of young talent as building blocks for the program’s future.
“We have a very strong group of girls,” she said. “I want to see us grow as team as I continue to grow as a coach. We have a bright future.”