Steady play crucial for Lions
In more than two decades as volleyball coach at Lansing High, Julie Slater has become a pro at handling adversity and molding young talent into a cohesive team.
Still, Slater's 22nd year at the helm may prove to be one of her most challenging. LHS returns just three players from last season's varsity club.
"I can't remember when I had just three returning," Slater said. "Usually there's five or six at least."
Of the nine varsity newcomers, two are freshmen. That makes this the first time under Slater's watch that more than one ninth-grader will suit up for the varsity club during a season.
Slater said she doesn't expect her squad to gel quickly. That's unrealistic with so much roster turnover.
"We are a work in progress, and we're going to keep working," she said. "We're going to battle (inconsistency). The goal is to work toward consistency. That's always the battle in volleyball. But especially this year with three returning, that karma is not there yet. Some days they look great, and other days I don't know."
Although she has a young squad, Slater said the possibilities are endless if her players gel. LHS won the Kaw Valley league title last year, and Slater said that is a goal again this year. So is advancing to the state tournament, something the Lions have done eight of the last 10 years. LHS narrowly missed qualifying for state last year.
"I really feel like I have a lot of great talent here, but it's going to take everybody and it's going to take a lot of work to pull them together," she said. "But that's what I get paid for. It'll be a tough year in that regard, but I think they have the potential to be just incredible."
The foundation of the squad will be the three returning varsity players. Senior Kate Courtney, an All-Kaw Valley League selection a year ago at middle blocker, will move to outside hitter. Senior Jessie Delinger will play in the middle, and senior Riann Deere will play libero.
Sophomore Brittney Lang likely will start at middle blocker, but the remaining starting positions are up for grabs. Senior Elizabeth Cristiano and freshman Rachel Milnark will battle for playing time at outside hitter. Juniors Katie Nietzke and Morgan Chiles will play the back row as defensive specialists. Junior Erin Griffen could play both the middle and outside hitting spots. Juniors Sara Logan and Kristen Jensen and freshman Breanne Sanders will compete for the starting spot at setter.
Slater said nobody's positions are safe right now.
"We're very inconsistent and we've got to do better," she said. "We've got to have better passing, better setting, better consistency on hitting, and just everything right now."
In previous seasons, the LHS varsity has opened its season with the Lansing Invitational, but that will change this year. Slater recognized that her squad would be young and needing earlier tests before playing a tough field at the home tournament. The annual Red-White Scrimmage is at 5 p.m. today, and then Lansing will open the regular season at 5 p.m. Sept. 6 when it plays host to Mill Valley, Turner and Blue Valley for a quadrangular meet.
The Lansing Invitational will begin at 9 a.m. Sept. 9 at LHS.