A volleyball revival is underway at Owen

Tom Flynn
Special To The Black Mountain News

After a tough five-set loss to North Buncombe on Wednesday night that dropped Owen High School girls’ volleyball to 4-5, the Warlassies were understandably disappointed.

“I think we did a lot of things as a team and then we just let ourselves down,” said senior libero, Kathryn Wilkos. “Everybody has to collectively come and pick it back up, and sometimes that's hard to do.”

Seniors Chesney Gardner, left, and Kathryn Wilkos stand ready to return a serve against North Buncombe on Sept. 5.

“I think we came out strong and we pushed the momentum and once they started fighting back we got down and started focusing on them,” said fellow senior, Chesney Gardner. “Those are things we have to let go. We’re learning from that and teams like these are good to learn against before we hit conference.”

The momentary disappointment right after a tough match masks the larger excitement over a major turnaround underway at Owen.

Senior Chesney Gardner follows through on a kill at home against North Buncombe.

In 2016, the squad went 2-21. Last year, they improved dramatically to an 8-10 overall record and a 6-2 mark in the Western Highlands Conference under first-year head coach Kim Clark.

Clark, a math teacher at Owen, was the sixth head coach in six years to lead the team, and her return this year is one factor that has steadied the program.

“I’ve got almost all my players back. We only graduated two seniors,” Clark said. “We went to the first round of the state playoffs last year. We hope to go back again this year and do better this time.”

An integral part of the sustainability of Owen’s progress is growing its bench depth and JV program. Last year, the varsity squad numbered just nine players after the disappointing 2016 campaign. This year that total grew to 11, while the JV ranks have swelled to 14.

“Having 11 definitely gives us more options, especially in practice. It gives us more choices of drills to run and in the way we practice,” the coach said. “It also gives us more options if somebody’s not having a good night; I’ve got a pretty strong bench to pull from.”

Second-year head coach Kim Clark surveys the court at Owen as senior Kathryn Wilkos prepares to return a serve.

Clark sees her work with new JV coach Cory Greene as another key to the Warlassies’ prospects.

“We’re trying to help these girls grow their skills and get ready to play at the varsity level,” said Clark. “We brought in a brand new JV coach who is phenomenal. He really knows what he’s doing and he works well with the girls. So I’m excited about that.” The JV team is scheduled to play 21 games this season.

In volleyball, the WHCis a six-team league, and last year the Warlassies finished second only to Polk County after a last-place finish the year before.

“Owen has a big rivalry with Reynolds, but I don’t feel like that really flows over into volleyball. I feel like it’s more of a football rivalry,” said Clark. “Our biggest rival is Polk. That is who I sort of have my eye on this year. That’s definitely who we want to beat, and need to beat, in order to be conference champions.”

Clark attended Tuscola High School, where she played for the team there as well as for a club squad, and went on to attend Purdue and Appalachian State University. After prior stints coaching at Owen, she resumed her head coaching role in 2017.

“I think as far as volleyball goes, when I first took over the program back in the early 2000s, we were pretty competitive; we went to the playoffs every year. And then I left for a few years and we sort of lost that competitiveness I feel,” said Clark. “I think last year it came back and the girls started winning and started to see they could be competitive at this.”

Gardner and Wilkos are the senior leaders for the Warlassies. Gardner is a middle hitter. “My job is not only to middle hit, but I complete every block. I also play middle back, too,” said Gardner. Against North Buncombe, she registered a handful of emphatic kills that rallied the team during the match.

Wilkos exhibits similar versatility on the court. “A libero is typically the best passer on the team. You have to be quick on your feet. You have to know where the hitters are going,” said the senior.

The two athletes look capable of continuing their volleyball into college after their Owen careers are over. Wilkos intends to, but hasn’t made a school selection yet. For Gardner, it is her final season with the sport at a varsity level.

“I’m going to go play basketball in college. This is just my recreation – my fun sport. I love it to death and I’d love to go on; I’ll miss it when I’m done,” said Gardner.

The Warlassies played Erwin on Sept. 10, before heading to Polk County for a showdown with the Wolverines.