Oakwood testing its mettle with tough early season schedule

Oakwood testing its mettle with tough early season schedule

OAKWOOD — Lynn Anderson is used to bussing her Oakwood athletes to Mahomet on a yearly basis for the Bulldog Invitational. She'll do so again next weekend.

But Anderson wanted an even earlier test for the Comets this season. Enter the Timberwolf Tip-Off Tournament at Cissna Park last week.

"Our (athletic director) said, 'That's a lot of games in one week.' I said, 'That's fine,'" Anderson recalls. "We'll find out right away what we can handle and if we're in some kind of shape because, being the first week, it's still a conditioning week."

The result? A 4-1 record and a tournament title for Oakwood that makes up a large part of its cumulative 7-1 ledger thus far.

Anderson's expectations, though, remain high for the Comets.

"I think our passing needs to get better," she said. "Nothing is going to be perfect, but I'm never satisfied with passing ever, and of course that's a number one skill."

Still, victories over LeRoy, Paxton-Buckley-Loda, Watseka and Heritage at this stage are nothing to sneeze at. That's especially true considering Oakwood's varsity crew numbers just eight.

With News-Gazette All-Area first-team selection Brenna Durst graduated, senior McKenzie Doan and junior Katelyn Young have stepped up in big ways.

"But what's nice is it's all a team effort," Anderson said. "Both are very humble kids, and there's no jealousy at this point in time."

Young has proven especially dangerous in the Comets' middle, using her 6-foot-1 frame and skills that are garnering Division I college basketball offers to stabilize the Oakwood attack.

"She has great court sense," Anderson said. "She's a great kid, and everyone loves her. She doesn't seek any kind of recognition. That's her role."

Deep roster works well with SJ-O

ST. JOSEPH — Some coaches are confident in saying they can trust their whole lineup in the majority of situations.

That takes on a whole different meaning for St. Joseph-Ogden coach Abby McDonald.

"We have 17 on our varsity roster, and all 17 of them — and I've told them this — can play on any given night," said McDonald, whose Spartans stayed undefeated with a sweep of Teutopolis at home on Thursday night. "Generally you have your top six to eight or 10 that play, but for us, we have 17 kids that can play and allow us to be successful no matter who is on the court."

Early returns support McDonald's beliefs.

At the start of this week, a quartet of SJ-O athletes sat between 2.33 and 2.60 kills per set. The group's leaders in digs, aces and assists also resided well below the top area averages.

And yet, the Spartans maintain a perfect 5-0 ledger that includes victories over Mahomet-Seymour and Cissna Park, along with an immaculate 10-for-10 outcome in sets contested.

"We've had some great teams here in my 13 years being here, but to have a bench that is so talented and to have kids that put so much time into the sport, it's something very unique," McDonald said. "We're blessed as a program."

Not only is McDonald getting contributions across the board, but some of the biggest are coming from underclassmen.

Junior Katelyn Berry, sophomore Payton Vallee and freshman Kennedi Burnett — the latter a sister of 2017 News-Gazette All-Area volleyball first-team pick Abbi Burnett — are among those who pace the SJ-O attack.

Juniors Emily Bigger and Kenly Taylor also have shone, while seniors Rylee Walsh, Eve Owens, Bree Trimble and Emory Erickson have used advanced prep experience to benefit the Spartans on their strong start.

"In terms of anybody standing out, our offense and defense so far this season have been extremely balanced," McDonald said. "To see that kind of talent, it's something that's really exciting."

Rockets flipping the script.

TOLONO — No one likes losing. Kylie McCulley's Unity squad was especially fed up with its struggles against a specific opponent: Bismarck-Henning/Rossville-Alvin.

"In the past, when we've played Bismarck," McCulley said, "it seemed like we always had our home opener losing in three sets against them."

The Rockets resolved that issue in 2018, exploding past the Blue Devils 25-9, 25-12 on opening night. Unity has stayed hot, defeating LeRoy, Mahomet-Seymour and Tuscola as the Rockets (4-0) remain unbeaten.

That's a quality start for a Rockets group that played just one match in last year's Class 3A postseason, falling to the aforementioned Bulldogs in three sets.

"This year we're a lot more well-rounded than we've been in the past," McCulley said. "We've always just had one or two key hitters to go to. ... (At) any given point in time (this season), we have someone that can take care of the ball."

As with its Illini Prairie Conference foe in SJ-O, Unity has seen underclassmen rise up to take key roles.

Sophomores Lily Glanzer and Gracie Cox and freshman Emma Bleecher have gone from non-varsity spots to must-dress athletes for McCulley — especially on a roster that boasts just three seniors.

"We had more people play in the offseason than we've ever had, and it definitely shows," McCulley said. "We just tell the girls we need them to work hard and show us what they can do ... and everybody's super supportive."

After Unity's three-set home win against Tuscola on Thursday, the Rockets will head into the Casey-Westfield Tournament on Saturday. Again, this is a chance for Unity to show things are different than in years prior.

"We almost always go 2-3 or 3-2, and we would love to break that curse and make it to the finals," McCulley said. "I always tell my girls, whatever game we play in, to focus on us."