The Specialists: the top setters, liberos across the CIK area
WICHITA, Kan. (Catch it Kansas) - Maize South senior Laurel Jones, a Marquette commit, has set since around her sixth grade year. Through experience, Jones learned the nuances of working with certain players.
“When I would set the same ball, I would watch some hitters do really well off of it, and some do not so well,” Jones said. “And so I am the setter, I like setting my hitters up kind of for the best they can be. So when they weren’t hitting well, it made me feel like it was my responsibility to help them and fix it.”
Jones served as a middle hitter and setter as a freshman and played setter and right side two years ago. Last fall, Maize South ran a 5-1 with Jones as the lone setter. The results have yielded 37-9 and 39-4 records the past two falls.
Despite multiple injuries, the 6-foot-1 Jones has 1,274 assists in ’18-19, including 894 in ’19. Jones ranked No. 11 for all classes in total assists, according to the Kansas Volleyball Association. Maize South’s Teri Larson has coached several Division I players in more than 23 years of volleyball. Larson said Jones, known for her calmness, is one of three girls “who could do everything” in her career.
“I have to stay calm myself and calm down my teammates just because I want to win, and I know that freaking out isn’t going to help that, and at the end of the day, it’s not everything,” she said.
“Like volleyball is really fun,” she added. “But I know that it’s not something I need to stress about a lot and freak out. So might as well just stay calm, because you will end up winning a lot more if you do.”
Jones is a back-to-back second team all-state Class 5A setter. She is one of the top specialists (setter, libero, defensive specialists) returning in the CIK area.
“We have been very blessed,” Larson said. “I have had some pretty darn good setters, but Laurel just takes it to a new height. I mean, not everybody sets with that consistency.”
Of the 16 returning players that earned all-state honors by the KVA for at least setter and libero (some players were listed multiple positions), 10 are in the CIK area. Discounting Class 6A’s four returning specialists, 10 of the 12 from the smallest five classes are all from CIK area.
In 5A, Jones and Carroll senior setter/outside Ella Larkin were second team. Larkin has committed to LSU.
In 4A, Augusta senior setter Jadyn Jackson was honorable mention all-state and has committed to Pittsburg State.
In 2A, Spearville senior libero Alissa Heskamp, one of Kansas’ top three-sport athletes for all classes, picked up first team all-state. Bluestem senior Torrance Lovesee, listed an outside/middle/setter, was second team 2A. Lovesee has committed to UTEP. Ellinwood senior Mya Maxwell (OH/S) earned honorable mention.
In 1A, Central Plains junior outside/setter Kassidy Nixon earned first team, with Cunningham senior libero Morgan Meyers honorable mention. CP was first and Cunningham third in 1A.
This year, the group includes Hays High libero Brooklyn Schaffer, and TMP’s duo of junior setter Kassidi Yost and senior libero Emilee Augustine, both team captains.
Cheney features junior setter Brooklyn Wewe, a second team 3A selection, and senior libero Lexi Cline.
“I’d like to say that I am kind of scrappy, and so that’s one of my favorite things in the game is digging and diving everywhere,” Cline said.
Great Bend enjoyed a record-breaking 28-7 season and senior Sydney Unruh was a first team all-league player. For her career, Unruh has 1,086 digs and 1,243 service receptions.
McPherson, which is sixth in Class 5A, opened 4-0 and has senior defensive specialist Taylor Casebeer (318 digs last year) and junior Brette Doile (807 assists).
As well, Maize South returns a pair of key defenders with senior libero Riley Kennedy and junior defensive specialist Callie Palecki. Kennedy, a three-sport athlete, paced the Mavericks with 314 digs. Palecki delivered 169. Jones and Kennedy are the only seniors for Maize South.
“Maybe she might misread a ball, but she can get there still with her foot speed, and she is very competitive,” Larson said of Kennedy. “She loves the competition aspect, and her and Callie work really well together. They are a good combo. They love back row. They push each other. They love passing and digging. Some kids, they are bored with that. These kids eat it up. They love it.”
Maize South’s Jones adjusting to different hitters
Two years ago, Maize South’s best hitter was 6-foot outside Skylar Goering, a second team all-state pick. She redshirted for Wichita State volleyball last fall.
In ’19, Maize South’s main hitters were Erica Fava (5-9), McKinley Pruitt (5-10), and Carley Sterneker (5-7). All three were seniors and shorter than Jones, a rarity in the high school ranks. Fava, a foreign exchange student from Italy, led with 387 kills and a .333 hitting percentage, which ranked in the top-50 for all players, according to the KVA.
“We have zones where we are setting, but depending on the height of the player, and the verticality, some will need it higher than others or whatever, faster, because of their speed difference,” Larson said. “So she figures that out. She knows how to set that player so she gets the kind of ball she needs to get a kill, whereas a lot of younger setters don’t have that skill.”
Last summer, Maize South noticed Fava’s talent and vertical. Jones said the Mavericks “wanted to push ourselves” because of Fava’s ability. The team “bonded a lot faster.” Early, Jones and Fava encountered a language barrier, but moved past that. Maize South opened ’19 with a pair of wins versus Derby and Goddard, two eventual state teams, and Fava collected 29 kills.
“I really liked playing with her,” Jones said. “There’s just certain players that for some reason, you just really connect with well, and she was one that I definitely felt was very easy to set.”
Jones had played with Pruitt for many years. Pruitt was in the middle.
“I knew that if I really wanted her to swing kind of a certain way, I could push the ball in a certain position to make her do that,” Jones said.
Jones needed to set Sterneker differently. Fava, Sterneker and Pruitt all had between 559 and 872 attacks. Overall, Maize South carried a .251 team average.
“She was a lot shorter, so it was finding kind of the sweet spot off the net that she could hit the ball,” Jones said. “And same thing when she was in the back row, kind of finding the spot for her that might be different, so those are two very different sets that I had to learn for the shorter outsides like Carley, and then having (Pruitt) aggressive in the middle.”
Maize South graduated 77 percent of its kills from ’19 and opened preseason No. 10 in 5A. On Saturday, Maize South started 3-1 in the ACVTL tournament. Jones quarterbacked the offense, and the Mavericks had key performances from sophomore middle hitter Avery Lowe and freshman outside Gracie Morrow. Jones had a hybrid role and provided some attacking.
In wins against Eisenhower and Liberal, Morrow led the squad with 13 combined kills. The 6-foot-1 Lowe recorded 76 kills for varsity last season. Junior Skylar Lopez has transferred in from Cimarron, and junior outside Rylee Karst emerged.
“They have the confidence that the ball is going to be where they are calling it, whereas some setters, you are hoping it’s where it’s going to be,” Larson said. “It’s just a different level.”
Schaffer anchoring new-look Hays High lineup
Albany Schaffer started all four years as Hays High’s libero and played at Division I Louisiana-Monroe. Schaffer finished her career last fall as a key four-year defender. She played in 375 sets with 923 digs and led ULM in digs per set as a senior.
Schaffer’s lone sibling is Brooklyn, currently a four-year player on Hays High’s back row. The two are very close, and Albany was in attendance for the season-opening Hays High tournament Saturday.
“Volleyball is like a great way for us to communicate, like we wanted to hang out, oh, we could go play volleyball,” Brooklyn said.
Schaffer and the other Indian seniors were honored on senior day. HHS finished 4-1 with new coach Shannon Funk and took second to crosstown opponent Thomas More Prep-Marian. Schaffer earned the tournament’s outstanding defender award. She would like to play college volleyball, though is undecided on a school.
“She’s really great at defense and being coachable,” Funk said. “She is very driven to improve her game, and so every feedback that I give her, she is immediately trying, taking it in and always trying to improve.”
Brooklyn made varsity as freshman defensive specialist, played libero on and off as a sophomore, and has started at libero the last two years.
“It’s just part of my life now,” Schaffer said of the back row.
Last fall, Hays High went 22-14 and Schaffer paced the Indians with 268 digs. HHS returned just 22 percent of its kills and just two seniors with experience. Brooklyn has learned just “control what you can control” from her sister. She has more than 500 career digs.
“I know a lot of obstacles are thrown at you, and the biggest thing that you can do as a player and as a person is to control what you can do,” Brooklyn said.
Since Hays High is young with limited experience, Brooklyn has focused on being a vocal leader and helping them on and off the court. That was clearly evident Saturday. After virtually every point, Schaffer met with player(s), offered encouragement and even at times provided tips and strategy.
She helped Hays High overcome an injury to junior Ella Voth during a pool play match versus Salina Central. In the set when Voth suffered injury, Schaffer delivered 10 digs, two aces and had her knee wrapped after a cut. Sophomore Carly Lang, a reserve as a freshman, collected all-tournament team honors.
“I’m just trying to be the best player that I can be for my team right now,” Schaffer said.
Augustine among many key returners for TMP
The Monarchs returned 98 percent of their digs from a 33-7 team that is preseason ranked fourth in Class 3A. TMP is 171-35, including 5-0 this fall, since the start of the ’15 season with veteran coach Natausha Dreher, coach Funk’s sister.
Last season, libero Emilee Augustine and Jadyn Gottschalk paced TMP with 365 and 284 digs, respectively. The seniors have played together since age 12. On Saturday, Augustine and Gottschalk again performed well.
“They are going to need an ice bath I think after today,” Dreher said. “But they have so much pride in their positions, and they understand that those great attacks, those beautiful sets don’t come without the sacrifice of their touches on the ball. And they take pride in it, and I think their teammates really take a lot of pride in the sacrifice that those girls make.”
Augustine delivered many diving digs, including 19 digs in the final two sets in the three-set championship win versus Hays High.
“We talked about that a lot today, it’s playing with pride,” Dreher said. “Playing representing your school and representing your name well, and I think all the girls played for each other in that way.”
Augustine has received junior college interest, notably from Butler County. The 5-foot-5 Augustine entered this fall with 623 digs and 898 serve receptions. The 5-foot-6 Gottschalk delivered 353 career digs entering this season.
“I love wearing the different libero uniform,” Augustine said. “You definitely have to earn it, but it’s so much fun to wear. I just play, do my role. Whatever helps the team for sure. I know my teammates got my back for sure. If I do my job, they will do theirs for sure.”
Yost delivered 784 assists, No. 22 in Kansas last season. Dreher had senior Sophia Coulter as a defensive specialist in ’19. This year, Dreher wanted Yost to hit and set.
“She sees the floor, she jumps well,” Dreher said. “And Sophia I feel like runs a beautiful offense as well, and they feed off of each other. It’s an easy transition to go from one setter to the other because they run similar offenses, and I think the girls really love that, so it’s nice to have that balance.”
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