CLINTON – The Irish volleyball team has improved infinitely over the last couple of years, but they’re still not where they want to be. The junior class wants to change that.
They’ve started out the season 6-6 with three tournaments under their belt.
The junior class, who started the shift in the program three years ago as freshmen, are now upperclassmen leaders. And they all see the difference.
“We have a lot more confidence and our skills have gotten better,” junior Paige Kuehl said. “Now that we’re kind of the leaders for the team ... I feel like we have a larger role in what we have to put in and what we show the younger kids.”
Kuehl joins juniors Grace Dehner, Anabel Blount and Isabel Hansen as the cornerstones of the team. They came out freshman year and were shell-shocked a bit, finishing 0-23.
Now, they have two full years of varsity experience under their belt.
“It’s a major difference,” Blount said. “Freshman year, we were just kind of getting used to things and it was a whole new environment for us. Going into this year, we’re used to it and we know how to help the girls that are new to it. We know what our strong suits are and what our weaknesses are and we know what we need to work on and what we need to do to get more wins and success.”
The stats were skewed quite a bit for the first few years towards Blount, who brings a strong arm to the outside and is pretty stable in the back. Things began to improve last year with the addition of middle hitter Lily Isenhour and now they’ve added middle hitter Sarah Moeller to the mix.
Offensively, Blount still leads in kills but this time Isenhour, Kuehl and Moeller are all close behind and bring more threats to the net.
Irish setter Isabel Hansen can see the difference and it’s allowing them to open up their options.
“I know in the middle, either way they can get a kill down and then Paige [Kuehl] and Anabel [Blount] on the outside and Grace [Dehner] on the right,” Hansen said. “Plus we’re able to work on a quick sets a lot more.”
With the juniors having to step up as leaders at a young age, Blount has done her best to help even out those statistics.
“I feel like I try to help people believe they can do it because that’s my mentality,” Blount said. “If I go up to hit a ball I believe I can kill it any time.”
With Hansen running the setter spot all the way around she can also see one of the biggest weak points for the Irish. Defensively, their back row isn’t always there.
“It’s hard to get a good set if you can’t get a good pass and if we can’t get a good set then we can’t really get a kill,” Hansen said.
“Defense,” Blount reaffirmed. “If people watch us they’ll know that our defense is something we struggle with a little bit. It’s inconsistent, we have our highs and lows. We just need to keep it at a high because when it deeps down, we stay there for a while.”
It is improving, though. They are second in the conference in digs right now, sitting behind the ranked Lisbon Lions, even though it’s still early in the season.
The inconsistency will improve as the block does as well, and both Sarah Moeller and Lilly Isenhour are improving that aspect day by day.
The biggest thing the juniors are bringing to the table this year is their attitude. You can watch the Irish on the floor and tell that they’re having fun playing the game, not just out there taking swings.
“I feel like if we’re not getting excited, we won’t do as well,” Blount said. The junior class is the first to celebrate a side out during games. “We need to be motivated to win. If we play a team that’s a lot worse than us we tend to play down to their level because we’re not having as much fun.”
It helps that they’ve been winning about half of their contests so far, and that’s predicted to improve as they head into conference play.
“We stay positive,” Hansen said. “As freshman it was hard because we were losing a lot more and we were new to it. This year we’ve got it more down pat.”
Either way, Grace, Paige, Anabel and Isabel have grown as players and continue to lead a team full of talent. They know that they still have places to grow, but they know that they still have the potential to make those improvements.
“It’s a lot of our junior years,” Blount said. “We’re not underdogs and we can’t say that we’re young. The juniors should be leaders in carrying the team. We know how to play and we’ve played a lot.”