Hawks have low centers of gravity, high hopes for volleyball season
Highland lost to Trinity Christian on Monday despite 23 assists by Miranda Shaw, left, and 18 kills by Julia Granato. --Courtesy Photo
The Highland Hawks’ middle hitter is as short as their libero.
Forget a height disadvantage. That’s a height disaster for a volleyball team. The Hawks are making do, though, and they have high hopes despite their low centers of gravity.
“If we continue to play as a team, I think we’re going to go to states,” said junior Tanya Bopp, Highland’s 5-foot-4 middle hitter. “We can be just as good as the previous teams that Highland has had.”
Last season, for only the second time in program history, the Hawks advanced to the state tournament. They won a 2012 VISAA Division II quarterfinals match before losing in the semifinals. In 2011, they won two state matches before falling in the championship match.
On the road back to state this season, Highland suffered a minor setback Monday. The Hawks lost to the Trinity Christian Gryphons, 25-16, 25-16, 16-25, 27-25, at home in Warrenton, but Highland still has a winning record at 4-3. They’ve often managed to overcome their lack of height by serving well, playing strong back row defense and passing well.
That wasn’t the case at times Monday, hence the loss. The Hawks showed some promise in the final two games – even threatening to force a fifth game by taking a 25-24 lead in the fourth – but they simply didn’t have a block set up at the net that could slow down Gryphons outside hitter Amanda Smith. She had seven kills in the final game and finished with 16 overall.
“It’s hard to play back row defense [endlessly], particularly against a big hitter like” Smith, Hawks coach Gary Hicklin said. “We’re not tall across the front. We’ve been working in practices on blocking schemes, but we have some work to do.”
That’s no knock on Bopp. The 5-4 junior is clearly playing out of position for a team that has only one player over 5-9. In fact, she has a strong swing and is one of the Hawks’ best two hitters thanks to her impressive vertical leap.
“She has to play middle,” Hicklin said. “She’s the best fit at this time. She stepped in and accepted the role but, yeah, that’s tough for 5-4.
“That’s the good thing about all these girls,” he said. “They’ve all accepted the role I’ve asked them to play.”
Highland lacks height all over the court, though. Its tallest player, 5-10 junior Miranda Shaw, is actually its setter.
“We’re kind of short,” 5-8 junior outside hitter Julia Granato said with a laugh. “We’re working on that [block]. We’ll get it.”
Junior Ann Collins (5-9) flashed some middle hitter skills while playing there Monday. The junior had the Hawks’ lone block as well as five kills. Granato led Highland with 18 kills, while Bopp had 12 and Shaw had 23 assists and two kills.
Not only are the Hawks short, they’re young. Libero Shelby Thornhill (5-4) is Highland’s lone senior. The Hawks’ roster features six juniors, two sophomores and a freshman.
That freshman, Ashton Eicher, played often in pivotal moments Monday, including the end of game 4. She was one of four Hawks to finish with three aces (Shaw, Thornhill, Bopp).
“The present looks good,” Hicklin said of his young team. “The future looks better.”
Despite its youth, Highland has some experienced players. Granato, Bopp, Shaw and Thornhill are all returning starters. However, the two starters Highland lost to graduation following last season were significant. Middle hitter Lauren Frye and outside hitter Mackenzie Ross shared the Player of the Year award in the Delaney Athletic Conference and they both made the VISAA D-II all-state team.
Lauren Frye stood 6-1 and only moved from outside hitter to middle hitter following the graduation of similarly-sized middle Peggy Day. Frye’s 2011-12 teams created new expectations for the Hawks by qualifying for state.
“Our expectation is to continue the trend,” Hicklin said. “As we get experience and make a few adjustments, I expect to be right there when the end comes. I think these girls can do it.”
“The bar is set pretty high, so we’re trying to live up to it,” Granato said.
The Hawks will have to avoid slow starts like they experienced against Trinity. Highland kept only 62 percent of their serves in play during the first game.
“And not much better in the second [game], which is just not us,” Hicklin said. “We, characteristically, are very good at the service line.”
The Hawks finished the match at 78 percent serving. They also had 30 hitting/passing errors, most coming in the first and second games.
Regardless, Trinity’s Smith proved hard to contain. With Highland trailing 22-21 in the fourth game, for example, Bopp lunged to dig a ball hit by Smith, allowing the Hawks to returned fire. Smith, however, eventually launched another ball hard into Highland’s court. Granato was able to dig up, but that only led to a third Smith swing, which landed for the point.
Later, with Highland leading 25-24, Trinity deliberately set Smith in the back row for a kill and then Kelsey Meins served consecutive aces to win the game and the match.
“But what you saw in the fourth set was us” playing well, Hicklin said. “It could have gone either way. We could have gone to the fifth [game] and then who knows?”
For Trinity, setter Kelsey Meins had 22 assists and six aces, while Smith had two of the Gryphons’ four blocks, Katherine Flores had five kills and Anna Oneto had three kills and three aces.
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