Warlassies dig in for another run at playoffs
Few faces remain from the roster that carried the Owen volleyball team to a 13-10 record and a second consecutive trip to the NCHSAA State Playoffs in 2018. Gone are names like Kathryn Wilkos, who earned a gold ball for 1,000 digs during her Warlassies career and Chesney Gardner, who led the program with 89 kills.
Yet, despite starting the 2019 campaign with a 1-3 record through their first four matches, this year's squad has its sights set on a return to postseason play.
Kim Clark is entering her third year at the helm of the varsity volleyball program at Owen. She guided the Warlassies to an 8-10 record in 2017, which earned the team a spot in the playoffs for the first time in several years.
Clark's team posted a winning mark in 2018, before falling to North Lincoln 3-0 in the opening round of the state championship tournament.
"We graduated four starters from last year's team, so we're super young this year," Clark said. "I have five seniors this season, but two of them didn't play last year. We're excited to have them back, but they lost a year of volleyball."
Seniors Riley Marett, Camillia Harrin and Miriam King return to the starting lineup with sophomore Gracie Bolick.
"This is a talented team," said Marett, in her third varsity season. "We're still working on building our chemistry, but if we can develop that same family-like bond we had last season, we can win some matches."
That core group will play an instrumental role in the team's success this season.
"I've had a lot of conversations with our seniors, together and individually, about stepping into that leadership role," Clark said. "Chesney was a big personality and so was Kathryn, so losing those voices has been an adjustment for us. But, Riley and Cam have really stepped up to become our vocal leaders."
Clark's focus early in the season has been on evaluating players to determine how they fit within the team's system.
"Last year I knew what I had coming into the season," she said. "Throughout the off-season and coming into the beginning of the season I didn't know who was going to play where. This year has been much more of an unknown for me, as far as figuring out how this group will work together."
The team is working to identify key players to fill the roles vacated by last year's senior class.
"We've been putting people in positions that they haven't played before," Marett said. "Playing in a new position can make players uncomfortable at first, but they learn to love the experience as they adjust."
Owen plays 9 out-of-conference matches to open the season before its first Western Highlands Conference contest against Mitchell on Tuesday, Sept. 17.
"These early-season matches against opponents from other conferences help us refine our approach and get ready for our conference season," said Clark, whose squad finished second in the WHC in 2018 with an 8-2 mark. "We want to do at least as well this season and, of course, we'd like to beat out Polk for the top spot."
Achieving that goal will involve perfecting the fundamentals of the sport, the coach added.
"We have to practice our passing and hitting," she said. "If we can consistently set up our offense, we can compete with anybody."
This year's roster features a trio of players — Laila Burk, Hannah Fortson and Alyssa Watson — who stand over 5-feet-10-inches.
"We have a group of tall players who play well at the net," Clark said. "Those girls are also athletic and can make plays in all kinds of different scenarios."
It's the intangible qualities of the team, however, that put the Warlassies in a position to make another run at the playoffs, according to the coach.
"This team doesn't quit," Clark said. "They rallied in their first game against Enka and even though we were down against North Henderson they refused to quit."
Pride in their performance on the court has been a focus for the players, according to Marett.
"When we talk about pride, we're talking about each player taking initiative and making this team successful," she said. "That word means a lot to us because that's going to give us the confidence to win and achieve our goals this season."