Kroner's regional volleyball breakdown

Regional volleyball starts Monday. Prep sports coordinator Fred Kroner spotlights  five area teams to follow during the tournament:

Charging forward
Centennial coach Stan Bergman is impressed. The reason is more than his team’s 31-4 record. “This was the toughest schedule we’ve ever had,” Bergman said. The area-best win total was achieved, he said, because “the girls have made a commitment to play the sport and better themselves.” The Chargers are the No. 1 seeds for the six-school Urbana 3A Regional. Bergman has rotated players throughout much of the regular season and won’t stop now. “We’ll be interchanging,” he said. One aspect has been settled. All of his varsity players had the chance to serve as captains at various matches, which Bergman said, “allowed everyone to be a part of the pregame ceremony.” He recently had the team vote on captains who will serve in that capacity throughout the tournament trail. The choices were Libby Cocagne and Paulina Nottingham. “We’ve had good leadership,” Bergman said, “but to stabilize what we wanted to accomplish, we wanted to pick a couple to take us into the postseason. We will rely on them from the communication point, the inspiration point and as two people to set the example.” Cocagne and Nottingham are two of the nine seniors. The Chargers are brimming with confidence after earning a piece of the Big 12 title. Centennial shared it with Central, a possible title-match foe in Thursday’s regional finals. “We’re extremely excited to get the conference championship out of Bloomington-Normal,” Bergman said. In the previous 17 years, a Bloomington or Normal school won or shared the title in 16 years. The exception was 1999, when Central won. Centennial tied for first in 2011 and 1996.

Maroons seeking revenge
Central coach Evan Hook has athletes from each class on his 12-player roster. Early in the season, he took the unusual step of canceling practice for a team bonding session. “At the beginning of the year, no one knew each other,” he said. “One day, instead of practicing, we got to know each other.” The move paid off for his 28-7 team. “Practices are going well, the girls are motivated and the team gets along with each other,” Hook said. A nucleus of eight players will be prominent as the team heads into the postseason seeking its third regional title in the past four years. Setter Mia McDonald is a senior as are middle hitters Lexi Schweighart and Jaelyn Westfield. Freshman Maddie LeGrande and senior Kailyn Demith are the outside hitters. Sophomore Katie Sloniger is the libero. Splitting time as right-side hitters are freshman Dana Westfield and senior Kristin Hammel. Second-year coach Hook is pleased by the season’s results. “I never want to say I doubted them, but they’ve impressed me,” he said. LeGrande and Jaelyn Westfield are each closing in on 250 kills for the season. McDonald is the area leader in assists, averaging 8.73 per set. The versatile Demith is second on the team in aces and digs and ranks third in kills. Hook is not looking past his team’s regional semifinal match, but if the Maroons find themselves in the finals against Centennial, he said, “there will be a lot of energy and a lot of excitement.” Central could get a chance to avenge two of its losses. The team lost to Mahomet-Seymour, which it could face in the semifinals, in the second match of the year, and also to the Chargers.

Spartans in loaded regional
St. Joseph-Ogden finds itself in what is one of the area’s toughest Class 2A regionals. The Spartans are seeded second at Unity to Paxton-Buckley-Loda, the regular season Sangamon Valley Conference champion. The No. 3 seed is St. Thomas More, which has the area kills leader, sophomore Lexi Wallen. One 20-win team will not get to celebrate a regional crown. “There’s always one regional that is top heavy,” SJ-O coach Abby McDonald said. “It’s unfortunate the state doesn’t do a better job of placing the top teams. It’s a disadvantage to the kids who have worked hard to have the success they’ve had. We’re not getting the best teams to move on.” Six seniors play regularly for SJ-O, including unheralded middle hitter Nicholle Brown, who is often overshadowed by dynamic junior outside hitter Shelby Simmons, the Spartans’ kills leader. McDonald said Brown is responsible for some of Simmons’ kills. “Nicholle is not on everybody’s radar, and she’s fine with that,” McDonald said. “Sometimes we utilize her (as a hitting option), but a lot of times we use her as a decoy to open things up. Some kids that age have a hard time not getting the kill, but she’s not one of them. She’s a very mature kid. If she’s holding the middle hitter (in place), she’s comfortable with that.” Other senior mainstays include setter Sydney Stone and hitters Kylie Baker, Brianna Broeker, Kenzie James and Bailey Trimble. The Spartans have put together a 20-win season — their 12th in 13 years — despite a schedule that featured six Class 3A teams whom they were 3-3 against. SJ-O has had 20-win seasons all five years McDonald has been head coach.

Weights lift Lancers
Just because her team reached the 20-win mark last year (24-7) for the first time in more than a decade, coach Val Cornwell didn’t think it was a given that the Lancers would achieve 20 wins again this fall. “Our conference last year was young, and most schools had their varsity players returning,” Cornwell said. “Therefore, I knew it would be a difficult task to repeat 20 wins.” Her 22-5 team met the challenge. Cornwell credits the offseason commitment to the weightroom as a major factor. “There were some close games and tournament days that would not have had tally marks in the win column if it hadn’t been for the weightlifting and conditioning,” Cornwell said. Among the Lancers’ returnees this season is setter Sherelle Coller, who improved her vertical jump by 3 inches over the summer. “She doesn’t get rattled and knows how to make adjustments to her sets or set placement to make the best of the situation,” Cornwell said. Enhancing Coller’s effectiveness is a stable of strong hitters featuring Julia Cohan, Jessica Davis, Karly Goodman and Emily Seegmiller. “It’s nice for the setter to have those options,” Cornwell said. The Lancers are the No. 2 seeds — behind Windsor — at Bethany. A-L lost to Windsor on Monday. “Playing Windsor this close to regionals is a good thing,” Cornwell said. “The adjustments we have to make are fresh in our mind. Being the underdog is usually a good thing in the postseason. There is less pressure, so hopefully we will be less nervous.” Defensively, Ashley and Brooke Tabb are the catalysts. “It all starts with a pass,” said Cornwell, whose team won a regional in 2011.

Blue Devils overcome slow start
Coach Susan Kentner’s Bismarck-Henning program has been a model of consistency, winning at least 20 matches in 10 of the past 15 seasons. The Blue Devils, seeded No. 1 in their own Class 2A regional, take a 17-6 record into the postseason but that includes 12 wins in their last 13 matches. “Sometimes, teams have to go through adversity to really find out what they are made of,” Kentner said. “We have been through that, so I am hopeful that our senior leadership and experiences this season will propel us through the postseason. The losses that we had early helped us to pull together as a team.” Fourth-year varsity setters Taylor Ellis and Lauren McKenzie have been stabilizing forces. “They are so consistent and smart about volleyball and have gotten the team back on track,” Kentner said. Senior Abby Bergman is another of the Blue Devils’ mainstays. “Abby’s defense has defined her play,” Kentner said. “Her blocking and back row are fantastic. She is one of the most competitive players I have ever had.” Brittany Spicer is frequently overlooked as a hitting option on a squad with Mary Bass and Maranda Witty leading the way. Spicer, however, is an effective force. “I can put her anywhere in the front row and she can get kills,” Kentner said. “She is extremely consistent, smart and powerful.”  Libero Morgan Gerbsch and defensive specialist Maddie Winkler are solid contributors. Sophomore Jessica Hall (a shot put state qualifier in 2012) has added power to the lineup. In the B-H regional are six of the schools that competed in the Vermilion County Tournament. Only Armstrong-Potomac is missing.

Categories (3):Prep Sports, Volleyball, Sports

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