At several key points in Polk County’s 3-0 volleyball win over Crest in early September, the Wolverines faced crucial points that could’ve tilted the outcome the other way.
Repeatedly, the Wolverines answered with kills to earn a key point or stop a Chargers rally. Polk County hitters continued to come up huge, and senior setter Zaelea Eller was a big part of the reason why. She was poised, she was confident and, often, she simply refused to let the Wolverines fail.
“At some point, you realize that we can’t play around anymore,” she said. “We can’t keep making mistakes. It’s dig or die, or you’re not going to win.”
Eller had 25 assists Wednesday as Polk County bounced back from Tuesday’s loss at Brevard with a 25-12, 25-21, 25-9 victory over Pisgah.
The senior setter is going to do her best to put the Wolverines in a position to win every time out. She’s been playing volleyball since she was seven years old, starting as a libero before moving to setter in seventh grade. Since then, she’s embraced it. She said she loves the technical, mental aspect of the position just as much as the physical game.
“Every person you set is different,” she explained. “Middles are all different, outsides are all different, right sides are all different. You have to meet those people’s needs for each set that you give them.”
All of that knowledge about the many different ways her teammates prefer to receive the ball has to be processed and implemented for Eller to deliver the perfect set. She has to decide where she’s going with the ball, how that person would rather receive it and how to get that done – often in a fraction of a second.
“It’s a split-second decision that I have to make,” she said. “This is very much a mental game as well as the physical aspect.”
A good thing for Eller is that the Wolverines do have a number of players who are strong hitters and who can terminate points. She strives to build a comfort level with all of them, so that communication on the court is second nature.
“We practice a lot and focus on what each person likes,” she said. “We get used to setting that person a lot. We can run that quick, or if they want something different they can call it really fast. And then I have to decide if I want to set that or not.”
Setters are often referred to as the quarterbacks of a volleyball team. While that’s sometimes true, they’re also often a lot like offensive linemen – instrumental to success, and largely unnoticed unless they fail.
Polk County head coach Molly Hill said she can see both comparisons, and that Eller embraces both roles.
“I’ve heard it both ways,” she said. “Setters touch every ball. They control the offense. They decide who gets set and what they get set, but I also agree with the offensive line comparison. It’s true that they don’t get noticed a lot, and we couldn’t do it without Zaelea and without Charley (Dusenbury). They’re running our offense, and they’re setting our big hitters when we need them to, and they’re smart about who they’re setting and when they’re setting them.
“When we definitely need a kill, who are we going to? Zaelea’s doing those kinds of things while still giving everybody on the team opportunities and plenty of chances and attempts. I’m really proud of her. She’s stepped up this year, big time, and she’s playing front row. She’s killing it.”
Eller said doing some of the unsung work suits her just fine.
“Hitters get the glory,” Eller said with a laugh. “But I like it when my hitters succeed and I get to say that I was a part of that, or at least I tried to be a part of that. And it’s great to have the hitters that we do. I know that whoever I set, they’re going to execute.”
Who’s executing the best is another piece of information that Eller has to evaluate on the fly. In an early-season game against Rosman, Morgan Yoder was phenomenal and put up some huge numbers. She did it in part because Eller recognized that, and consistently fed her the ball.
“When one of my hitters is on fire, I usually set them a lot until the other team adjusts and blocks,” she said.
Eller certainly isn’t limited to just passing. She’s able to score herself, and sneaks in shots from time to time.
“It’s usually when we’re up by a lot,” she said. “I’m not really used to playing front row, this is my first year playing there on varsity. I’m like 5-foot-5 and our hitters can jump really high, and I don’t want to mess up.”
The willingness to try something on the court despite the fear of making a mistake is important to a setter, though, and it’s an area in which Hill said Eller has some freedom. The bond between coach and setter is an important one.
“I do feel like we have a special bond,” Hill said. “I’ve had that with all of my setters. I feel like I can tell them that I need them to go back out right now and set this person and to set this play, and they do it. The trust has to be there. The confidence has to be there. She’s really got that, and we’re very proud of her.”
With Yoder and Overholt both surpassing 500 career kills, Eller is closing in on a milestone of her own. She’d like to have 1,000 assists, and through Wednesday’s win, her career total stood at 825. Hill thinks she can reach her goal.
“We’re very confident that she can reach 1,000, and that’s one of her big goals,” she said. “I’m pushing her right along the way, because I think that’s really exciting for her.”
Eller doesn’t want to talk about personal goals, though. Her focus is on helping the Wolverines move forward as a team.
“This season I hope that we keep our head on our shoulders,” she said. “It’s like a mind game for us. If one of us is struggling, then some of us are down. But if one of us is up, then all of us are up. I hope we keep moving forward and don’t get down on ourselves as easily.”