The learning curve can be steep for a team with a new coach and just three seniors.
When a team loses its star middle blocker to injury and its starting libero to sickness the climb over the learning curve may as well be Mount Everest.
That’s what first-year coach Michelle Stoffey and the Peoria girls volleyball squad has faced this season. Despite those challenges, the Panthers have pulled together a 4-5 record, 2-3 in 4A-I West Valley region and pushed Kellis (6-5, 4-1 in West Valley region) Thursday to a four-game match before falling 3-1 (25-22, 12-25, 12-25, 20-25).
Stoffy said while her club has been hit with injuries, it’s given her captains a chance to step up and be good leaders for the other girls. And they’ve filled that role well, she said.
”Injuries have been our biggest challenge this year,” Stoffy said. “But we’re also a young team and it’s taken time to gain that experience. We have three seniors, and brought up two players from junior varsity today to fill the opening, it takes time to adjust (to this level of play). Either way, it’s a blow when you lose your best player.”
The experience gap – Kellis has three seniors as well, but offsets those number with seven juniors – opened in games two and three as the Panthers were unable to halt the Cougar momentum.
Kellis had a 7-6 edge in Game 2 before a Peoria net violation spurred a 10-1 run. Senior middle hitter Christina Whitaker helped with a pair of blocks and a kill off a set from sophomore Kellie Hose.
The Panthers earned a side out after a long volley that was kept alive by Ashley Footer’s diving dig and sophomore Brittany Dobson’s block on Ella Young’s tip. Dobson would convert on the next point with a block tip, but that’s as close as Peoria would get in the game. The Cougars finished the game with a 7-3 run.
Kellis didn’t let up in Game 3, jumping out to an 18-4 lead that featured three service aces and a steady stream of kills from junior hitters Brooke Razo and Amanda Ferreira. The Cougar rush ended when Young pushed a tip wide and The Panthers responded with consecutive kills from senior Estrella Linares and junior Christa Markley to spark an 8-1 run. Whitaker halted the modest comeback with a kill off a Ferreira cross set and libero Victoria Constable served an ace to regain control for Kellis.
”We played with a lot of heart, but as a young team you have to play smart,” Stoffey said. “We have to do a better job setting up plays to hit around their blocks and set good passes to get good hits. We just have to find our niche and get in sync.”
Peoria nearly forced a fifth game as it fought back twice in Game 4 to tie it, including a 4-0 run while Footer was on serve to even things at 19. After Kellis earned a side out on a net serve, the Panthers regained the ball on Footer’s kill from Dobson, which cut the lead to 21-20. However, Kellis went on a 4-0 run to finish off the game and match.
”Kellis is a great team and I’m proud of the way we played tonight,” Stoffey said. “(Kellis) and Sunrise Mountain are team we really practice for and are focused on.”
Constant starts and stops filled Game 1 as neither side gained an edge until the 10 point mark. Linares connected on a pair of kills while Peoria opened 4-0 run and a 13-10 lead.
After a timeout, Kellis capitalized on a Panther passing error and Ferreira served an ace to regain momentum. That started a 9-3 run for the Cougars, but Peoria answered back with it’s own 8-3 run, which opened with three-straight aces by Dobson and capped by Footer’s service ace for the Game 1 win.
The road doesn’t get any easier for the Panthers as they travel to No. 7-ranked Sunrise Mountain.