In recent seasons the bar of volleyball success has been raised consistently higher by the O’Fallon Panthers.
The Panthers have won regional titles in each of the last four seasons while never recording fewer than 29 wins, including a 32-6 mark last season and 30-6 in 2012.
Coach Melissa Massey’s club began this season with 17 wins in 20 matches, which might seem like something special. Massey is pleased, but thinks there is plenty of room for improvement for the Panthers, who are currently third behind Edwardsville and Columbia in the BND Large-School Volleyball Rankings.
“It’s definitely been interesting for sure,” said Massey, whose team’s only losses are to Belleville West, Edwardsville and Mater Dei. “We are pretty dominating at the net. We have quite a bit of firepower from all the positions up top. We are just kind of struggling in the back court a bit.
“If you talk to a lot of volleyball coached they admit defense wins, so we’ve been trying to step our game up.”
Massey has seen enough positive signs to believe her team is headed in the right direction. The Panthers will get a good test this weekend at the Belleville East/Wendy’s Metro Classic, which features some of the top teams in the metro-east and St. Louis region.
“I have full confidence in this squad,” Massey said. “It’s not like I’m sitting here going ‘Oh my gosh, what am I going to do?’ It’s just getting them to gell and find their full potential. Hopefully that happens later this season as we get closer to the playoffs.
“Obviously the end result is what we’re shooting for.”
O’Fallon’s talented and balanced hitting crew includes Cassie Reno (118 kills, team-high 34 blocks), Elise Smith (108 kills, team-leading 92 digs), Imani Williamson (99 kills, team-high 19 aces), Kenzie Simmers (72 kills) and Mackenzie Koester (71 kills).
That’s a lot of kills — and a lot of balance. Ali Fournie (329 assists, 8.66 per game) and Koester have the bulk of the assists.
Massey said the lineup adjustments may continue until she hits on one with better consistency.
“We have mixed it up so many times,” she said. “This is probably the most I’ve switched things around, which is good. It means we have a lot of depth on our bench and a pretty strong JV team as well. We’re just trying to find the exact lineup that works and pushes us through at the end.”
Koester is a four-year starter and six-rotation player.
“She’s that kid that would literally do anything for me, even if it’s completely out of her comfort zone,” said Massey, who also credited the job done in the middle by Reno and Koester. “We have such strong middles this year that they get a ton of action in there.”
On the outside, Smith and Williamson do a lot of damage.
“Imani has really stepped up for us. not as much on back row,” Massey said. “She’s so athletic it’s unbelievable, she can track a ball down from across the court and having a 33-inch vertical also helps at the net. Elise can be a force up there at the front, too. She’s done a great job.”
No nerves on the surface
Belleville West coach Lauren DeGirolamo was asked about her seemingly calm demeanor Tuesday night during a wild 32-30, 31-29 victory over city rival Althoff on the Crusaders’ Senior Night.
Wasn’t she at least a bit nervous with both teams fighting off set points and match points for extended periods while battling though an exciting match?
“You do get nervous because you’re standing on the sideline,” said DeGirolamo, who played college volleyball at Louisiana State. “There’s nothing you can do, but at the same time there’s no reason to get upset. I hope that maybe my composure and being calm helps them to stay kind of calm in those tight situations.
“They did a great job, probably not because of me, they just did a great job because we came out tonight and played well.”
Belleville East hosting huge tourney
One of the top local tournaments on the girls volleyball calendar is the Belleville East/Wendy’s Metro Classic.
The tourney is set for Friday and Saturday and features some of the top teams in the metro-east as well as the St. Louis region and other parts of Illinois. Ursuline defeated Belleville West in the championship match last season and among the new entries are O’Fallon, Quincy and Normal.
Unbeaten Columbia (18-0 through Wednesday) is the No. 1 seed, followed by Normal and Nerinx Hall (16-2-1) and Ursuline (11-8-2) from St. Louis. Pool play begins at Belleville East and the Southwestern Illinois College intramural gym at 4:45 p.m. Friday, with Saturday bracket matches beginning at 9 a.m.
The gold flight championship match is set for 1:30 p.m. Saturday.
“It’s a tough tournament to seed,” Belleville East coach Stefanie Gaubatz said. “I believe it’s a really good tournament as far as competition and the teams that we pull to be in it.”
Among the other metro-east teams competing are Belleville East, Belleville West, Althoff, Mater Dei, Gibault, Mascoutah and Central. Other St. Louis area teams include Incarnate word, Parkway West and Cor Jesu along with Illinois teams Champaign Centennial and Mt. Pulaski.
Belleville East (8-9) started slow, but has shown improvement with wins in four of its last six matches. The Lancers pushed Mater Dei to three sets Tuesday in another defeat.
“We started out rough and were not playing to our potential, which was frustrating,” said Gaubatz, whose team showed promise by knocking off previously unbeaten Normal at the Lincoln Tournament. “We changed our lineup a lot in the beginning. In the past we only had a few spots to fill and from my experience we never had to start fresh, but this year we really did.
“We started running a 6-2 (lineup) and changed it to a 5-1. We tried a bunch of stuff since things before obviously didn’t work. I’m definitely not opposed to changing again if I feel like we need to.”
Two of East’s most consistent player have been Holly Badgley and Derika Moore.
“Holly is very even-keeled with her attitude and emotions, which is big,” Gaubatz said.
The coach also likes the way Moore has emerged since taking on a bigger role at the Lincoln Tournament as an outside hitter when some players were absent while taking the ACT exam.
“She has just totally stepped up,” Gaubatz said. “She’s really made a name for herself and is a big threat now, where before I don’t think other teams put much thought into her.”