PENDLETON — The Pendleton Heights volleyball team improved its win total dramatically last year, from eight wins to 18. The senior class that helped make that happen is gone now, but coach Blair Barksdale said she’s confident the young, albeit inexperienced, talent that remains will improve throughout the season and continue the Arabians’ winning ways.
In preseason workouts and practices, Barksdale said she’s been surprised by the effectiveness of the team’s passing game. She is concerned about the team’s depth, with so many young players in the rotation, but there have been many positives early on.
“What I like that surprises me has been our ball control from our core group of kids,” she said. “Outside of that, that’s a little concerning, there’s not a lot coming off the bench. Our offense in the middle could be even better this year with our two tall, young kids in there.”
Barksdale is talking about sophomores Gracie King and Averi Lanman, both taller than six feet with plenty of athleticism. The two dominated at the junior varsity level; despite combining to play just 23 varsity sets, the duo had a total of 36 kills.
“The biggest thing right now is their connection with the setters, and that just comes with experience,” Barksdale said. “At the varsity level, it’s a little faster, so it’s establishing that connection. They need to know that we’re going to get them the ball as much as possible.”
The bulk of the returning experience resides in the two seniors back from last year’s team in Brinkley Gary and Michelle Merryman. Primarily an outside hitter, Gary was third on the team in kills last season with 186 and second in digs with 122, while Merryman is a contender for the important libero position after being third in digs and in serves received last year. Barksdale said the two are showing the leadership needed for such an otherwise young team.
“They are very vocal and they may come across as hurting someone’s feelings, but they are just really competitive,” Barksdale said. “They expect a lot out of themselves, they expect a lot out of us as coaches, and they worked hard in the offseason; both played Munciana. They want to win things like county and be competitive at sectional. They are going to hold everyone accountable, and they’re doing a really good job.”
Like King and Lanman, other Arabians boast plenty of athleticism. A third senior, Claire Goodwin, and junior Gracie Criswell — return to the team after taking 2016 off — and sophomore Aubree Dwiggins play other sports as well and add leaping ability and power. Goodwin is a setter, while Criswell and Dwiggins will help Gary on the outside.
“I was excited to see Gracie come back,” Barksdale said. “She could step in and be our other outside hitter. We’ve got to have someone step in other than Brinkley on the outside. (Goodwin) could be a third option as a setter or outside. Dwiggins is very versatile; I’m looking at having her set out of the back row and hit in the front row.”
The Arabians also have bloodlines working in their favor. Criswell, Lanman, King, Gary, junior Sylvia Phillips and sophomore Ally Hall are among key performers who have older siblings who have excelled at Pendleton Heights.
Barksdale said while this doesn’t guarantee success, they know what it takes to succeed.
“There’s a lot of tradition — they have a lot of passion at Pendleton in sports,” Barksdale said. “They have their older sisters to look up to, so yeah, I think that’s really neat.”
There is a lot of size and plenty of power on this team, but ultimately, success will come down to ball control and passing, something Gary, Hall and Merryman excel at. But Barksdale said the team needs more than three good passers.
“Our setters are going to be important part of our team, whether they know it or not,” she said. “Their athleticism is going to be really important for our team this year.”
Barksdale’s approach to the upcoming season is the same as last year, one game at a time and one practice at a time, always looking to improve.
“Every time we step in here, as long as we get better each time, you can’t ask much more than that,” she said. “Then I think the results will take care of themselves.”
The Arabians opens their season with a home match against Richmond at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Aug. 14.