A nice nucleus of talent returning should make the Highland High School volleyball team a heavy hitter again this season, despite losing several key members to graduation from last year’s team that reeled off the second most wins (24) in school history.
Four players graduated from last season’s squad, and it will be even harder to replace them considering that three of are displaying their vast skill set at the next level. Olivia LaPorta is a middle hitter at Division 1 Fordham University. Brooke Hustedde and Molly Stumpf are both playing at Lewis and Clark Community College. Maggie Keeven was the fourth member, and she is attending school at the University of Kentucky, but not playing volleyball.
“We have good people to fill their shoes,” said Highland veteran coach Tina Beyer. “We’re going to be a little bit younger, and we’ll see where we’re at, but this is a really good group.”
Key returners who will be three-year varsity starters are seniors Hayley McSparin, a middle hitter, and Sami Beyer, the setter and coach Beyer’s daughter, as well as junior libero Sarah Beth Wiegman, who took over the defensive specialist duties during her freshman year two seasons ago.
“We’re looking to those three to do a good job of leading us out there, so we are excited about those three,” coach Tina Beyer said.
Most likely, no one will be bigger on the team, literally and figuratively, than McSparin, who is a large presence at the net with her 6-foot-2-inch frame. She is a University of Alabama recruit.
“She did fabulous in the offseason as her her club team had another great performance this past summer,” Beyer said of McSparin and her Rockwood Thunder club team, which took fifth place at the 2015 USA Volleyball Girls’ National Championship in New Orleans.
Another key cog coming back is junior outside hitter Alex LaPorta, who is the younger sister of Olivia. As a sophomore last year, Alex already proved to be a force at the strong or left-side hitting position. She will join with the libero Wiegman as juniors to provide key leadership.
After seeing some varsity time last year, junior Madison Wellen will take over full time at the other strong outside hitting position, which was vacated by Hustedde.
“We really like Madison. She is nice and smooth, and her defense is good, which is wonderful,” Beyer said.
To round out the starting varsity unit, two seniors will be stepping up to the top level for the first time to split a position. After being a team leader and a good all-around middle hitter on the JV last season, senior Alyssa Anderson will be a right-side hitter in the front row. When the position rotates to the back row, senior Cassie Lamzik, who was the JV libero last fall, will rotate in for Anderson to play defense in the back row.
Good possibilities to rotate in for McSparin in the middle are freshman Claire Diercks and junior Hayley Taylor.
Other reserves for the varsity squad will be junior Megan Frey at setter, sophomores Addison Rinderer and Megan Sands as strong-side hitters, and freshman Emmy Nyquist at libero.
Beyer said the team had a really productive summer and proved to be competitive with several of the metro-east’s top-tier programs from Belleville West, Belleville East, O’Fallon and Columbia.
Beyer said her team should definitely finish in the top half of the Mississippi Valley Conference and is a contender for the conference crown. Defending champion Mascoutah, a well as Waterloo, should also be challengers for the MVC title.
Highland opens the season with a pair of home matches, first against Granite City on Thursday, Sept. 3, which will be followed by Wesclin on Tuesday, Sept. 8.
HHS’ first road test will come Thursdsay, Sept. 10 at Breese Central and the first MVC match will be Tuesday, Sept. 15 at Civic Memorial.
New to the Lady Bulldogs’ schedule this season will be the ultra-loaded Metro East Classic, which is hosted by Belleville East on Oct. 3. In addition to the Belleville schools, the tournament field also features Mater Dei and St. Louis Catholic powers Incarnate Word and Cor Jesu.
The Metro East Classic will be the Highland’s second of four regular-season varsity tournaments. The other three are the Granite City Tournament on Saturday, Sept. 19, the Highland Tournament on Oct. 9-10, and the O’Fallon Tournament on Oct. 16-17.
Good news for Highland and other Class 3A teams come playoff time is that Mater Dei has been bumped up to compete in Class 4A this postseason due to the IHSA’s newly instituted “success factor” rules for the 2015-16 campaign. Because of its many recent state tournament trips in Class 3A, including a third-place finish last season, Mater Dei, a Clinton County school of 427 students, will be paired in the regional playoffs with Southwestern Conference schools that have enrollments ranging from 1,414 students at East St. Louis to 2,504 students at Belleville East.
“The girls have been working really hard, and we have a good program, and it would be nice to get out of a regional for a change,” Beyer said. “We keep running into them. IHSA does what IHSA is going to do, and we all have our issues and complaints about what they do. But I have no control over any of that. I am just happy we may get an opportunity to go a little bit further and show people that the girls have been working hard and we have a strong program. But there are still some really good schools with us in 3A.”