Panthers finally break through
PAXTON — “Fifth time’s the charm” is not a common saying in any walk of life.
Lindsay Stalowy and her Paxton-Buckley-Loda volleyball program may adopt it, though, after capturing the Cissna Park Timberwolf Tip-Off title last Saturday.
In her fifth season pacing the Panthers, who sit at 7-0 after Thursday’s win at Watseka, Stalowy finally guided her squad to the aforementioned showcase’s promised land.
“Winning the Cissna Park tournament has been a goal of ours for quite some time,” Stalowy said. “We finally put everything together this year. ... We just felt comfortable with the schedule and stayed confident.”
PBL didn’t drop a set over the course of five Tip-Off contests, last beating Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley for the top prize. The Falcons finally got the Panthers on the wrong side of the scoreboard at the end of a set Tuesday night, but PBL ultimately was up to the final task in a three-set road win.
“I wouldn’t say our expectations have changed ... just because our expectations for each game are to show up and compete,” Stalowy said. “It is a nice confidence booster looking forward to some of our, so to say, tougher opponents.”
GCMS (4-2) qualifies as one of those. So too will St. Thomas More on Sept. 10, St. Joseph-Ogden on Sept. 17 and Unity on Sept. 24.
Stalowy is making sure the Panthers, first and foremost, keep their own affairs in order before worrying about those challenges.
Pacing PBL at this stage are sophomore hitter Addison Oyer, senior setter Abbie Schmidt and junior defensive specialist Makayla Klann — each one an all-tournament selection in Cissna Park.
Oyer’s involvement is of particular interest, given her change in role from 2018.
“Last year she was only playing front row,” Stalowy said. “This year we’re trying to get her to be a consistent rotation player so she can get to swing out of the back row.”
So why were these Panthers the ones to achieve what Stalowy’s prior iterations couldn’t to open a campaign?
“This group is competitive,” Stalowy said. “Every coach knows that you cannot teach competitiveness. That’s just something that comes very naturally to them. That alone is a difference-maker.”
Sages leaning on seniors
MONTICELLO — Kim Allison’s first year at the helm of Monticello volleyball featured seemingly endless swings in momentum.
The Sages’ first nine matches of 2018 alone featured win and loss streaks of four.
So perhaps it isn’t that surprising Monticello is out to a 4-0 beginning this season following Thursday’s home win over Warrensburg-Latham.
But similar results don’t necessarily equate to a similar group of girls.
“Last year we started to try to change our culture at the volleyball program at Monticello,” Allison said. “It’s like a continuation of what we had started last year.”
Setting the tone is a six-senior unit that Allison describes as flush with leadership tendencies.
One of those upperclassmen, middle blocker Mary Grace Ross, brought the Sages a much-needed spark in Tuesday’s triumph at Meridian, according to Allison.
“We were going through the motions,” Allison said. “And then there was a play by Mary Grace Ross and (sophomore middle blocker) Halle Kelley. ... They just went up for a block and they were both right there, and it went pretty much straight down and they were just elated.”
One of Monticello’s other seniors, right side Meredith Fraker, has impressed Allison with early her hitting percentage. Allison also acknowledged she desires even more offensive options for the Sages moving forward, highlighting the likes of junior Haliey Pierce and sophomore Renni Fultz.
One possible point of inspiration for these Monticello athletes seems to be a University of Illinois-based camp they attended in the preseason.
Allison didn’t take the Sages to this event last year. But now that she’s firmly entrenched within the program, Allison felt it was a good time to utilize that nearby experience.
“The talent there was amazing,” Allison said. “There was a high school team from Nebraska that’s won the state championship four years in a row. ... It was obviously good for the girls to see the higher level and what to aspire to be like.”
New-look Warriors thriving
TUSCOLA — Lydia Miller estimates she had her 2019 Tuscola volleyball roster intact for “one actual day” during the summer.
Whether it was vacation, injury, illness or club activities, something always seemed to get in the Warriors’ way of fielding a full unit. And yet, Tuscola is 4-1, only falling short to unbeaten Unity on Thursday.
“We’re playing very well as a group, and we’re learning a lot about each other,” Miller said.
One nugget of knowledge passing through the Warriors’ camp is that senior libero Kyra Moyer is capable of replacing Natalie Bates, the 2018-19 News-Gazette female Athlete of the Year, at that position.
Moyer received reps as a junior while Bates dealt with a knee injury, but Moyer herself also spent time banged up on the sideline. Even so, Moyer continues to prove Miller correct for handing her the libero keys when Bates was hurt and subsequently graduated.
“We kind of got to see what Kyra had to offer, and we were pretty confident she would do a great job,” Miller said. “She worked really hard this summer to step into that position.”
The Dean girls, senior Karli and sophomore Katie, simultaneously are showing prowess striking the ball — and providing intangibles that won’t always show on the stat sheet.
“When one’s out (of the lineup) and the other is in the front row, they’re telling each other, ‘This is the zone you need to hit to. Hey, why don’t you run this because that blocker’s over here,’” Miller said. “They get excited for each other whenever the other one makes a big play, and they get excited for everybody else.”
Even amid this solid start, Tuscola recognizes difficulties are on the horizon.
That includes facing some Central Illinois Conference foes with whom the Warriors often have had trouble in Miller’s six previous seasons.
“Shelbyville and St. Teresa ... I’d really like to see us compete at a higher level than we have with those teams,” Miller said. “There’s quite a bit of talent on our team that can really compete, if not beat those teams.”