The Central Cougars girls volleyball team had a celebrity visitor at practice Monday, but this was a celebrity that everyone already knew.
Jena Hemann, the former Central High and Texas A&M track standout who also played basketball and volleyball in high school, stopped by to visit with coach Jim Cook and the Cougars. A two-time college All-American in the heptathlon and winner of 10 Illinois state track championships, Hemann recently returned home from Germany, where she competed for the U.S. national team.
“That’s Jena,” Central volleyball coach Jim Cook said of an athlete he once coached that now has an opportunity to qualify for the 2016 U.S. Olympic team in the heptathlon. “She’s one of those athletes that you get probably once in a lifetime. She’s so down to earth, she’s not into herself. She has never forgot where she came from.
“The kids are just in awe of her. It was pretty cool.”
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Hemann’s visit just might help create some more optimism for a 2015 Central volleyball squad coming off an extremely un-Central like performance a year ago.
The Cougars were 19-18, the lowest win total during Cook’s highly successful coaching tenure. Central has won fewer than 25 matches only twice since he took over in 1995. During that time, the Cougars have won three state championships (1996, 2005, 2007) and reached the state tournament 10 times.
An old-school coach who stresses fundamentals and execution, Cook was not pleased with much of the 2014 season until the Cougars finally found the win column on a more consistent basis late in the campaign. They lost in the second round of the regional to Highland.
“We just did not play as a team early in the year,” said Cook, whose team opens the season at home Sept. 1 against Althoff. “It kind of surprised me. I made some changes in the lineup and I just said ‘This is the way it is, deal with it.’ We finished the season well, but I thought we might be a little better.
“I’m absolutely hoping this team is better. We need to be more serious at practice, take drills seriously and do more of those kinds of things.”
The Cougars return a top weapon in senior Kendra Wilken, a 6-foot-2 middle hitter headed to St. Louis University on a basketball scholarship. Wilken had a team-leading 203 kills last season along with 70 blocks.
“I’m very surprised that she has stayed with volleyball because obviously she’s going to play basketball at St. Louis U.” Cook said. “But never did she ever want to give up on volleyball. She’s 6-2 and athletic as can be. She can block, she can hit, she can do all the things we want — and she can put some smack-down serves on you.”
Senior Alicia Book (33 kills) will move from the middle to right side hitter and also shows promise.
“I’m hoping to shore up our blocking with her on the right side,” Cook said.
Senior Emily Detmer grabbed a starting spot at outside hitter late last season and returns at the position to provide both skill and leadership. The left-hander had 150 successful serve-receives last season and 43 digs.
“Emily’s the real director and leader of the team, plus she is a great player,” Cook said.
Senior setter Paetyn Albers is another returning starter. Her 192 points and 225 assists were both team-highs last season. Kirsten Thomas, who also saw some varsity action last season, is the other setter.
Cook has moved former outside hitter Grace Yaunches, a senior, to libero.
“She’s smaller and more adept at playing libero and playing defense,” Cook said. “She’s very, very quick.”
Cook also has big plans for outside hitter Kim Hall, a 5-foot-7 sophomore who saw some spot time on the varsity last season.
“She has shown some good stuff this summer and I think she’s ready to take this on, mentally as well as physically,” he said.
Juniors Michelle Parker and Kameron Jackson are both pushing for playing time along with Larisa Peters and Ellie Hostmeyer.
Cook is still searching for some answers with this squad, but has also identified some obvious strengths.
“Our quickness and our defense should be improved,” he said. “Our hitting will come if the defense is there.”