After starting four freshmen on the varsity for the first time in her coaching career, Edwardsville High volleyball coach Jami Parker experienced the roller-coaster ride and now is looking forward to a smoother path to success.
“We’ve started one or two before, but that was a first for us,” said Parker, whose 2014 squad was 20-17 and lost to Springfield in the regional final. “I think there’s a lot more confidence coming back into the gym this year. We were very young last year and there’s a lot of kids that weren’t sure of what they could do or what they couldn’t do on the varsity level.”
Some of those questions were answered in a hurry, especially when then-freshman Rachel Pranger burst quickly onto the area volleyball radar and finished with an impressive 205 kills. That was only one behind team leader Sydney Wright’s 206 kills and several other Tiger sophomores also carved out prominent roles.
Now mixing seniors with sophomores, all with experience, Parker has a lot fewer worries.
“It does make it easier,” Parker said. “They already have some chemistry together and they have a lot of experience working as a unit, so that definitely helps you jell a little bit faster.”
The Tigers won six straight regional titles under Parker from 2008 through 2013, also adding three sectional titles and a third-place finish at state (2010). They are on a stretch of 15 straight seasons with at least 20 victories and this is the kind of team that could rekindle the fires of success.
“We have a very experienced defensive line and very aggressive players,” Parker said. “We’re returning some big arms and some big blockers in the front line as well, so it’s going to be a very well-rounded team this year. They’re very competitive and they’re having a lot of fun.”
Senior returning starters include Wright as an outside hitter, middle blocker Annie Ellis (50 kills, 41 blocks) and Rachel Anderson (23 service aces, 528 digs) on defense.
Wright could be a calming influence on another young team.
“Syd has done a fantastic job of providing leadership,” Parker said, “talking to the younger players and spending time with them, pushing them in drills and teaching our Edwardsville traditions.”
The 5-foot-11 Pranger was no typical freshman. After her phenomenal freshman volleyball season, during which she led the team in service aces (54), finished second in kills and caused havoc for opponents, she turned to basketball.
She proved to be just as solid there, setting a freshman school record by averaging a team-leading 15.2 points and 7.9 rebounds per game on a 30-1 squad that reached the super-sectional.
Parker was asked to compare Pranger to former Edwardsville all-stater Sam Epenesa, a former Belleville News-Democrat Player of the Year and senior volleyball player at Purdue.
“Her serve-receive and her defensive stats are comparable to Sam Epenesa’s stats her senior year defensively,” Parker said. “Offensively she had very, very similar stats to Sam as a freshman as far as hitting and blocking are concerned.”
Pranger may reach a point where she has to make a decision on which sport to play in college, but her future looks bright no matter where she is heading.
“To be honest, she is happy and proud to be a multi-sport athlete,” Parker said. “She takes great pride in playing both sports and playing them both at a high level — and enjoying her time in both sports.”
Other sophomores returning as starters include middle hitter Kate Martin (68 kills, 47 blocks), defensive specialist Megan Woll (242 digs) and setter Rachel Verdun (4.64 assists per match).
Also in the mix are senior defensive specialist Allison Blume , junior defensive specialist Nicki Meyer and junior setter Shelby Saye. Parker is bringing another freshman along quickly in middle blocker Corrine Timmermann.
Weighing heavily on Edwardsville’s 2014 record was a 7-13 mark in four tournaments. The Tigers’ only metro-east losses came to Mater Dei and Belleville West, but their schedule annually includes some of the toughest teams in St. Louis and Chicago thanks to a pair of Chicago-area tournaments and another in Effingham.
The Edwardsville Tiger Classic is set for Sept. 4-5 and includes a loaded field with Edwardsville, Mater Dei, Mascoutah, O’Fallon, Collinsville and Cor Jesu along with Bloomington and several others.