If any volleyball hopefuls thought Hillsboro High School head coach Sandy Arnold was going to take it easy, take a victory lap after her first state championship, they received a rude awakening this past week.
Here’s a sample of the conditioning the Trojans did Thursday: straight jumps into quick footwork through a tape ladder, to shadowboxed run ups and hits, to sit ups with medicine balls, to a blocking drill with even more jumping, and finally finishing the exercise by shuffling and sprinting around orange cones.
The team did two rounds of this with a quick 10 count in between stations. Then they ran suicides with a pass each time a player reached the free throw line on any of Hillsboro’s three courts.
“That’s the least amount of running we did this week,” Arnold said.
Arnold knows her players, and a core of determined players is coming back with something to prove: to prove last year was not a fluke, to prove they are just as good without two key graduates.
This is a title defense. The Trojans were going to wear a target all year regardless if they won last year or not; they’ve earned that through a four-year run of state berths. The target is just going to be bigger this year, and every opponent will look to dethrone the champ.
“We’ve got to work even harder,” Arnold said.
Hillsboro’s season hinges ironically on a hinge — a human one. It’s rare to have questions about a returning player of the year, but that is the case with senior Tena Loewen. All those questions are about her surgically repaired left knee.
Loewen tore the ACL in her left leg on a seemingly innocuous drive to the basket during basketball season. All winter, she had attacked the basket without hesitation.
During volleyball season, she was the Trojans’ top hitter, jumping on nearly every play. She was also one of the first Trojans to dive on the floor for a dig. How will her knee fair in these instances? Will she have the same athleticism? Will she still be willing scramble on the floor for every ball?
The star athlete started her rehabilitation as soon as she could. She swam and rode an exercise bike for conditioning. She was cleared to jump and sprint in the last week of July. She soon asked Arnold to accompany her to the gym, to hit balls at her for blocking.
Arnold does not believe Loewen will be 100 percent at the beginning of the season. In truth, she doesn’t even know if she’ll be in the lineup. Loewen is still waiting for a custom fit brace. Arnold will not risk Loewen injuring herself in competition without it.
What is certain is Loewen’s mentality. Arnold said she has approached practice with the exact same zeal as the previous three years. The coach has had to keep her player from diving on the floor. This mentality has made Loewen a great player. Even at less than full strength, she should be one of the best volleyball players in the state.
Loewen is one of three key returning players that will be the foundation for the Trojans’ success.
If there was any player besides Loewen who could inspire her teammates just by will, by her consistent hustle, it would be Danae Bina. As she did last year, Arnold is pondering how to deploy the athletically gifted player. Bina could hit, she could set. In reality, she could do about any task on the volleyball court.
However, Arnold is more resigned to go with her instincts and again use Bina as a libero. Libero is a position that does not receive much credit. It is a player that is often two touches away from any point.
Utilizing her speed, jumping ability, and natural grit, Bina just happens to do that job as well as anyone in the state.
One player stood out from those suicide runs on Thursday. Arnold does not care who finishes the sprints first; she just wants the players to run hard. Addie Lackey did care. She wanted to be first. Every time.
Lackey’s willingness to run every sprint like she was fleeing a burning building exemplifies the determination she is showing throughout the first week of practice. In her junior season, she is looking to take the leap from a very good hitter to a star hitter. By coming into volleyball camp in tremendous shape, Lackey has shown Arnold that the Trojans can use her to take on a larger chunk of the team’s spikes. Arnold said they will rely on her to replace any of Loewen’s lost production and that of Krista Reimer who graduated.
A great team is not just made of star players but of the players willing to take on a smaller role. Hillsboro should have a bevy of these players again.
The biggest hole Arnold has to fill in the lineup is at setter. With Callie Serene precisely running the 5-1 offense last season, setter was never a question. So far, Arnold has looked at eight different players to fill the position. She is also debating playing two setters on the floor at once.
An early leader for the position is senior Maci Schlehuber. Schlehuber expressed interest in the position dating back to last season. Regularly in practice, she worked on setting as much as she could.
“She’s definitely shown a lot of interest in that spot,” Arnold said.
What helps Schlehuber’s chances is that she was the type of player who helped the Trojans win a state championship, an indispensible glue player who did a little bit of everything — block, hit, and pass. By nature, a setter must be able to perform a variety of tasks because she will never be substituted.
Whoever earns the setter spot will have a variety of hitters to set to. She will have the high-jumping athletes in Loewen and Lackey; no ball is out of their reach. She will also have Senior Erin Loewen in the middle of the floor for quicker strikes. And Taylor Thiessen, who could employ either attack.
Thiessen sat out all last season with a shoulder injury. She was a player Arnold missed last season for her blocking ability, mainly playing on the right side against another team’s best hitter.
The title defense begins in earnest on Aug. 25 in Halstead with the Central Kansas League Tournament. Arnold reminded her team of this on Thursday. She told her players to be ready for Hesston, Halstead, and Pratt who should all be good again.
A champion’s work is never done.