The slang term in volleyball circles is “hitting bangers.”
A front-row player rises, swings her arm from on high and sends the ball loudly to the hardwood on the opponents’ side of the net.
Capital High School, Class 3A state champions in 2017, third place a year ago, has plenty of players who thrive spiking the ball. Senior Maia Nichols has been state player of the year and is bound for Arizona State University next fall on a beach volleyball scholarship. Her sister, Madison Nichols, and first team all-league teammate Devyn Oestreich, both juniors, are expected to play in college.
The three, and senior middle blocker Olivia Huff, have all averaged at least a kill per set as the Cougars, 5-0 heading into Tuesday night’s home match with winless Shelton, lead the 3A South Sound Conference by a game over Peninsula.
But perhaps more so than in any other sport, volleyball’s offensive stars are no better than the players getting them the ball. For Capital, that’s meant setters Maddie Matthews, a senior, and Emma Haws, a junior.
Sharing the job in the Cougars’ 6-2 rotation, both Haws and Matthews average more than four assists per set, with only a handful of total errors.
The 5-foot-5 Matthews has been setting since she was 10, during her second season of club volleyball.
“It’s a lot of fun to be involved in every play,” she said.
Haws, who is 5-8, has played volleyball since she was 12, but is in her first season of setting at the high school level after stepping in for an Olympia Reign club team that had few players at the position.
“We’re privileged to have Maddie back as a senior. Emma is very new to setting, but she’s doing a fantastic job,” said coach Katie Turcotte.
Matthews believes knowing her teammates is key to a setter’s success.
“You’ve got to know what your hitters like and be able to help the team flow as one,” she said. “Different hitters like different sets, one might like it set further out.”
“Consistency is a big part of it,” Haws added. “The hitters need to know where you’re serving it, so they don’t have to adjust too much.”
Matthews and Haws are almost never on the court at the same time. Each will make a trip across the back row, serving as the setter, then sub out for the other when the rotation would send them into the front row.
They, and junior backup Bailey Glenn, support their fellow setters, but don’t try to change the way the other is playing during a match.
“We cheer each other on, we don’t really coach each other,” said Haws.
“We motivate each other,” said Matthews.
Since a front-row player also subs in each time the setters change, Haws and Matthews won’t always set every Cougar hitter in every match. But Turcotte hasn’t created specific pairings of setters and hitters.
“It’s not who each of them works better with, it’s who we want in the front row blocking and hitting to match up with what the other team has,” she said.
In addition to setting, Haws has excelled from the service line, leading the team in percentage at 93.
“Emma’s got a nice deep serve,” said Turcotte.
Just as Capital’s big hitters would be at a loss without the setters, Haws’ and Matthews’ efforts would be for naught if the Nichols sisters and Oestreich weren’t part of the team.
“Maia has settled into a really nice rhythm. She’s a captain this year, along with Devyn. They’re just really steady players,” said Turcotte. “Madison Nichols plays the middle, but she’s also a phenomenal defensive player. Not many middles stay in and play all the way around. When we need a play made or the ball to go down, Madison is one of those girls who really makes stuff happen.”
With a mix of the obvious veteran talent and varsity newcomers such as right-side hitters Emily Iglesias and Jaye Guichelaar, the Cougars seem poised for another post-season run, but the players and their coach acknowledge there is still work to do.
“Individually, we’re all really good players and we’re all good friends off the court, but we need to strengthen our on-court connections,” said Matthews.
Turcotte, hoping to peak as playoffs approach has made “Together” Capital’s season-long theme.
“We’re striving to try to hit that flow. I wouldn’t be happy if we’d already hit it already,” she said.
“We say ‘play with each other and for each other.’”