Eighteen wins a year for nine seasons, eight conference titles and a pair of state final four appearance – numbers that would lead to high expectations for any volleyball program.
But return six players from a 23-4 squad that won a school-record 18 straight matches, then add a handful of talented newcomers, and sky-high may not be an adjective enough to describe the anticipation. Such is the case for Polk County’s 2023 volleyball squad, which opens its season Monday at Pisgah.
Manging the conjecture may be as much a part of the job this season for Wolverine head coach Molly Hill as managing her 11-player roster.
“There are a lot of expectations from myself, people in the community, the school,” Hill said. “But with those expectations comes that excitement because we do know that we have a lot of talent, and we know that together, when we use that talent all as one, we can be great.”
Getting defensive: How far Polk County’s season extends may well depend on how it fills the vacancies in its back line.
Lisa Jones, Jocelynn Ramirez and Mountain Foothills 7 Conference Defensive Player of the Year Ella Waldman each graduated, giving Hill her biggest early-season challenge.
“It left a huge hole, and so we are playing around with different options,” Hill said. “We’ve got senior Elena Carroll, and she is really stepping up and doing great. I think that’s where she wants to be. That’s a major goal for her.
“I’ve also got Sophia (Overholt), who is a great passer, is super athletic and super fast. She can also get the job done. I’ve got Hayden (Blackwell) and I’ve got hitters who play really well in the back line. So we definitely have options.”
Senior Mikala Fisher could also see time as a defensive specialist along with Blackwell.
Whoever mans the back line will garner extra focus from Hill, a libero in college who stresses the importance of a sound defense. Even with the losses to graduation, though, she is optimistic about her favorite phase of the game.
“We have this really tough drill that we do every year,” Hill said. “I brought it from college, and it’s tough. It’s mentally tough and physically tough. It makes them talk and work together and it’s really stressful.
“Usually, to start the season, we have a goal and we’re maybe reaching half of that goal. We’re not getting close to the goal. But with this group, it’s different. We’re hitting numbers that are high. You have a minute to get as many perfect passes as you can, so you think 60 seconds, we’ll shoot for 20. We’re already hitting in the thirties and forties. So it’s been really cool to see that.”
Setting the table: Zaelea Eller shared setter duties last season with senior Amberlyn Scruggs. Now Eller’s the senior and will be counted on to be the anchor of Polk County’s attack.
“She’s doing great,” Hill said. “She’s excited. And she’s been a good leader, which I what I need from her. The setter, I call them the quarterback of the team. They touch every single ball, they run our offense and without them, we can’t hit, and they’ve got to work with whatever comes off the pass.”
Sophomore Charley Dusenbury will be Polk’s second setter. “I’m giving Charley a lot of information and tyring to teach her our offense and develop connections with setters she’s never set before,” Hill said. “It’s a lot on her, but she’s doing great. She gets a little nervous, so we’re trying to work through that. But she’ll be fine.”
Force up front: There is no shortage of offensive options at the net for Polk County.
The Wolverines return their top five hitters from last season, led by junior Morgan Yoder. Junior Mia Bradley and senior Ada Kelley are also back, with Overholt and Carroll also likely to see action up front if not playing libero.
Junior Kylie Lewis rejoins the team after taking last season off and will likely pair with Yoder in the middle, replacing graduated senior Elysia Smith. Junior Lexi Beiler, who led Polk’s junior varsity team in kills, will also play in the front, likely on the right side.
“Lots of people coming back, lots of talent and lots of options,” Hill said. “I can put one person here or they can play there, so it’s good to see that.
“Kylie is back and she’s doing great. She’s hanging in there, and she’s such a sweet kid. I have Lexi hitting more on the right side, and she’s producing a huge block. Right side hitters may not get quite as many sets as an outside hitter, but their main purpose and job is to be the big, huge blocker on our team because that’s where the other team is going to set more. And she throws up a huge block for us, especially when she’s paired with Morgan.”
Be-Deviled: Brevard once again looms as Polk County’s chief competition in the MF7. The Blue Devils return three of their top five hitters from last season’s 23-6 squad that reached the 2A West Regional championship game.
One change for Polk County this year, though – assuming they qualify, the Wolverines will compete in the 1A playoffs rather than 2A. That’s the case for at least the next two years.
Staying busy: Nearly every member of Polk County’s varsity played with a club team during the offseason, with players competing for Polk County Volleyball Club as well as teams in Spartanburg and Asheville.
Hill thinks that offseason experience will prove vital as this season progresses.
“They all play, and they’re in different spots, but they’re still getting the reps,” she said. “They’re still getting touches, they’re still committing and playing. And so, when we come back together, we’ve just got a few kinks to work out.
“We’ve got to develop some setter connections maybe with a setter that was on one team and a hitter that was on another. But it doesn’t take long to do that, and once we do that, to see those connections forming and things getting better, it’s exciting.”