Emerald Ridge High School’s volleyball team is hoping youthful exuberance mixed with experience will take it a long way.
A year after narrowly missing out on qualifying for the postseason, the Jaguars’ varsity squad will feature five sophomores who compete on the same club team.
For the past two years, outside hitters Jenna Mullen and Audrey Saelens, middle hitter Kateri Blodgette-Baker, right-side hitter Jessica Davis and setter Isabella Zubrod have played under legendary coach Jan Kirk at the Puget Sound Volleyball Academy.
“They’re very skillful,” said Kirk, who retired at the end of the club season in July. “Nobody in the Puget Sound region has even come close to giving them any competition.”
The Jaguars are hoping for a similar scenario in the SPSL South. Last season, Emerald Ridge missed winning the division’s final spot to the West Central/Southwest bi-district tournament to cross-town rival Rogers.
That team graduated five seniors, so third-year coach Bobby McGivern said the sophomores will be key contributors.
“I’m lucky to have had a hall-of-famer (Kirk) have them for a couple of years,” said McGivern, who also coaches at the Puget Sound Volleyball Academy in Tacoma. “They’ve gotten some high-level competition, and that’s how we become better players.
“These girls have been pushed. I’m very fortunate.”
The teenagers feel lucky to have the chance to attend high school together.
“I love playing with them,” Mullen said. “We have that team factor. We can trust each other and know how to play with each other.”
McGivern said it isn’t common for more than two club players to join the same high school team.
“They’re familiar with playing with each other so it’s just about building on that chemistry with the team,” he said.
That shouldn’t be a problem. Zubrod said the sophomores have received a warm welcome.
“It feels like we’re all just one group,” she said. “We play like we’ve played together before.”
Mullen said going from playing with girls of the same age in junior high to suiting up with – and against – juniors and seniors might be a bit nerve-wracking.
“That’s going to be a different experience,” she said. “I’m 15, and I’ll be playing with 18-year-olds.”
Still, Kirk said she thinks the girls can handle the pressure. She says that all of them have the potential to play NCAA Division I or II college volleyball.
“They can definitely play somewhere,” she said. “They’re very coachable kids, and very dedicated. They’d have to be dying to miss practice.”
McGivern said he benefits from being able to move the girls to different positions based on foes. But he doesn’t want to put too much pressure on them while they get used to high school. He thinks they may be more prone to “simple mistakes” than veterans.
“I have to remember they’re young,” he said. “It’s a whole new journey for them.”
It’s one that they can’t wait to start. Emerald Ridge opens the season Sept. 11 against Tahoma.
“I’m excited,” Mullen said. “I just want to start playing games already.”
THE EMERALD RIDGE SOPHOMORES
Kateri Blodgette-Baker, 5-9, middle hitter: Despite being the shortest of the sophomores, the athletic Blodgette-Baker is a go-to player in the middle and outside because she jumps and hits well.
Jessica Davis, 6-2, right-side hitter: Davis is a strong presence on both the right and in the middle. Her strength is working with middle hitters to set up double blocks, and she hits hard, too.
Jenna Mullen, 6-1, outside hitter: At more than 6 feet tall – and growing – Mullen is expected to develop into one of the region’s best players. Her coaches say she has NCAA Division I potential.
Audrey Saelens, 5-10, outside hitter: Saelens is also strong at middle hitter, which she plays for her club team. She is projected as the No. 2 outside hitter while she adapts to high school.
Isabella Zubrod, 5-11, setter: Playing with her teammates for so long means that Zubrod knows what they like to hit, and she produces. Her familiarity with the position will help the Jaguars.
2012 VOLLEYBALL OUTLOOK
Top team: Most of Bellarmine Prep’s starters return from last season, when the top-ranked Lions were upset by Skyline in the opening round of the state tournament.
Projected league champions: SPSL North – Kentwood; SPSL South – Puyallup; Narrows 4A – Bellarmine Prep; SPSL 3A – Auburn Mountainview; Narrows 3A – Timberline; SPSL 2A – Fife; 2A Evergreen Conference – Tumwater; Nisqually League – Cedar Park Christian.
Best player: Explosive outside hitter Courtney Schwan, a junior at Bellarmine Prep and reigning News Tribune All-Area player, started on the U.S. Girls Young National team this summer.
Others to watch: MB Michaela Berendt, 6-4, sr., Olympia; OH Courtney Jost, 5-9, sr., Gig Harbor; S Hunter Manke, 5-5, jr., Timberline; S Makenzie March, 5-11, sr., Puyallup; OH Dani Taber, 5-11, sr., Capital; S Sam Odren, 5-8, sr., Auburn Mountainview; OH Chloe Watson, 5-10, sr., Kent-Meridian.Jennifer Chancellor, contributing writer Todd Milles, staff writer