Coming off a 26-9-3 season that included impressive tournament appearances, an IHSA regional title and a Southwestern Conference championship, the O’Fallon High boys volleyball program might have a difficult time repeating its 2016 numbers.
Adding to the challenge for coach Katelyn Hagarty and her charges will be the task of replacing six players lost via graduation, including both setters of last spring’s squad.
Hagarty, however, is not in panic mode, armed with enough returning firepower and the addition of talented underclassmen ready to step in and fill significant roles.
“It’s always difficult losing players through graduation who were major contributors to a very good season,” Hagarty said. “But we are working on putting the pieces together, establishing a chemistry and team dynamic. Our players returning this year give us a solid nucleus of talent, and we have several new varsity recruits who have the ability to step in and contribute. By the end of the season, this group has the potential to be really, really good.”
Hagarty’s optimistic forecast is based, at least initially, on a trio of established veterans, all of whom have already inked pacts to continue their volleyball careers at the collegiate level. O’Fallon’s premier returnee is senior Luke Meidel, a four-year starter and Ohio State University recruit. Meidel, whom Hagarty tabs as the Panthers’ best all-around player, will man an outside hitter position and fuel a potent offensive attack. He will be flanked by senior Gabe Norsigian, a two-year starter patrolling as O’Fallon’s No. 1 middle-hitter. The third cog in O’Fallon’s arsenal is senior libero Ryan Nelson, returning for his third varsity campaign as the catalyst for the OTHS attack. Norsigian has already committed to Missouri Baptist, and Nelson has signed to attend Greenville College.
The focus during preseason workouts has been on identifying complementary players who will most effectively merge with O’Fallon’s three-pronged senior nucleus. Hagarty has plenty of options. One major project involves the transition of junior Justin Hovick from his junior varsity role as libero in 2016 to varsity setter this year. Three players are vying for the two remaining varsity spots — junior Jake Baldus, junior Romell Williams and sophomore Eric Toftemark. Justin McMahon, also a sophomore will work into the rotation in O’Fallon’s back row.
“The competition for our open varsity positions has been intense, which is a good thing,” Hagarty said. “Justin’s (Hovick) move to setter has been positive, and I feel confident that our group vying for playing time at the varsity level will give us a solid attack. To this point, our passing has been a definite team strength, which will benefit our overall play both offensively and defensively.”
In order to approach the numbers achieved by their 2016 predecessors, the Panther spikers will face major competition from Edwardsville and Belleville East in Southwestern Conference play. Despite the loss of its No. 1 player, Belleville West will again pose potential problems, and Belleville Althoff will feature a senior-heavy roster.
The Panthers will preview their talents March 23 with their annual Blue/Gold scrimmage in the Panther Dome beginning at 5 p.m. After that, it’s all hands on deck as they open the 2017 campaign with a SWC showdown at home against Edwardsville in just a week — March 30.
“We’ll be making adjustments in personnel early in the season, but, at the same time, we won’t have the luxury of easing into our schedule since Edwardsville is our first opponent followed by Belleville West the next Tuesday,” said Hagarty. “The Rockwood Summit tournament April 8 will give us chance to fine tune our rotation, but we will need to be sharp starting with our very first match.”