BELLEVILLE — Belleville East boys volleyball coach Stefanie Gaubatz admits that teams from the metro-east still have some catching up to do in order to compete with the Chicago-area powers on a consistent basis.
But local powers such as O'Fallon, Edwardsville and Belleville East are fast closing the gap.
One year ago, East finished 24-4-2 and advanced to the IHSA Sectional final, where the Lancers lost a three-set match to Minooka. The same Minooka team went on to place fourth in the state finals.
"I think we're getting better. There is still a gap between our area and Chicago, but more kids are playing club volleyball and the St. Louis clubs are now able to compete better with the Chicago clubs," Gaubatz said. "We're definitely lacking in height. We don't have the 6-foot-7 and 6-foot-9 kids playing volleyball like they do. I don't know what they're eating up there.
"Losing like we did in the sectional final was heartbreaking. But getting a chance to go up there and play was big for those kids. It was big for our program."
Hit hard by the graduation of several players including four-year starters Ben Thomas and Seth Procasky, East opens its season on Monday when it hosts Althoff at 5 p.m.
The Lancers have plenty of firepower returning with experienced players such as juniors Taylor Quinley, John Mathews and Josiah Bergt back to lead the way.
Gaubatz also has plenty of players of which to choose to play. The Lancers staff kept a program-record 26 players for all levels.
"It is a lot of kids. But when it came time to make cuts we found that we had several players at the same levels," Gaubatz said. "We want to give kids an opportunity to compete. Playing time might be an issue but they've got to fight for it in practice. It kind of brings out the competitiveness in drills as well and we're all for that."
In Mathews, Bergt and Quinley, the Lancers will have three of the best hitters in the Southwestern Conference.
As far as the formations she plans to use, Gaubatz said she is still undecided.
"I thought we might got with the more traditional stuff. I've thought about running a 5-1 or we might go with a 6-2. We're not set on that yet. We might have John (Mathews) hitting from the outside or the right side. Nothing is set and we've never had that before.
"This year I feel like I've got a ton of options. We just have to work through it and find out which ones are going to be our most successful options.''
Other hitting options include juniors Austin Cox and Deion Buckles.
Senior Adam Warren is currently the Lancers starting libero, while senior Patrick Smith has the task of filling the shoes of Thomas at the setter position.
Smith was the setter on the Lancers junior varsity team a year ago.
"I have a lot of confidence that Patrick will be able to do the job. He's worked with Ben (Thomas) for two or three years and hopefully it's kind of rubbed off on him,'' Gaubatz said.
"Keelan (Vaughn) will be swinging all over the place. One of the good things about this group is that they can all play multiple positions for us. We've got some versatility this season."
Senior Tanner Reeves and junior Austin Cox will also be counted on this season at Belleville East.