Cats’ ripening rookies adjust to primetime shift

By JOE JASINSKI
Herald Sports Writer

JASPER — With time, it will get better. Elisabeth Ahlbrand is sure of it.

Ahlbrand
Leinenbach

For now, her swings aren’t quite as strong as before she re-aggravated her right shoulder during the volleyball season’s early stages. She lugs around an ice pack after matches and added physical therapy to her list of after-school activities.

The operative word, at least for now, is patience. And the way Jasper’s junior outside hitter sees it, the concept also applies elsewhere.

With the proper care, her shoulder will heal. And once it does, she’ll resume pummeling spikes with more ferocity.

The wait-and-see mentality also has pertained to the Wildcat volleyball squad, still hampered by a slew of injuries yet beginning to find its way, as evidenced by its straight-set navigation past Washington on Thursday at the Jasper High School gym.

“We had a few rough matches at the beginning of the season so it’s good to finally get a conference win and just get on the right track for the season,” Ahlbrand said as she adjusted the bag of ice on her shoulder. “Because we have the potential to have a really good team once we all just kind of mesh together, get it together. I think we could be doing really good things together.”

Thursday’s 25-13, 25-15, 25-18 triumph over a Big Eight Conference adversary suggests that things could be turning around for the Cats, who dropped three of their first four matches.
Consider, too, that Jasper (2-3, 1-2) still has five players sidelined with injuries, and the team’s evolution to this point holds even more promise, coach Liz Milligan said.

“Trying to get this team to jell, the youth and the inexperience has really plagued us,” Milligan admitted. “But you know, I think just through practice and through trying to motivate them, I think they’re doing a great job.

“We’re getting a smoother transition than expected.”

In the coach’s eyes, that relative fluidity arrived thanks to a combination of things. First, a five-person senior class has helped foster a heartening atmosphere for the team’s youth. And with that, the youngsters have answered the call.

Milligan has relied primarily on two sophomores to occupy the setter and libero positions, while classmate Reagan Hochmeister (10 kills, three blocks) bolstered the front line. Michala Flamion is improving as a trustworthy anchor of the backline through her steady ball control, while Teyah Leinenbach continues to show refinement with her distribution at the net.

After an early 2-all deadlock in the second set Thursday, Flamion served 10 consecutive Wildcat points, including an ace — one of her three on the night — that awarded the Cats an 11-2 edge. She also sprawled for a saving dig midway through the 10-point swing, which Leinenbach then set for senior Tori Sermersheim, who proceeded to smash one of her team-high 15 kills.

For Leinenbach, stepping into the setter role as an underclassman didn’t rattle her. In fact, it was more excitement than nerves, she said. And the sophomore hasn’t faltered. She dished out 34 assists and corraled eight digs against the Hatchets in an encore to her gaudy 37-assist effort in a four-set loss to Mount Vernon on Tuesday.

From her vantage point, the foundation for success already exists. Now comes the fine-tuning.
“Things have gone pretty well,” Leinenbach said. “We still need to work on a lot of things but I think we have our fundamentals down pretty well. So I think we’re going to improve a lot.”

While those forward strides are exhibited more and more with their technique, the Wildcats agreed that parallel progress is just beginning to materialize with their communication. Milligan noted the team significantly reduced the number of balls that fell uncontested on their side Thursday night. To boot, she commended the Cats’ passing game for showing steady progress.

“When you get that going, then you can get your offense running, which was totally awesome tonight,” Milligan said.

Leinenbach associated the chatter troubles to “just being lazy,” an admission accompanied by a smile and a vow.

“We’ve always struggled with that,” she said. “But we’ll get better.”

Much of the problem correlates to the unfamiliarity, added Ahlbrand, who scattered eight kills Thursday. And now that the inexperienced are growing more cozy around veterans like herself, the talk should follow.

“Some people just aren’t comfortable with being loud,” Ahlbrand said. “But that’s what volleyball is. You’ve got to be loud and have fun.

“We’re still not completely used to playing with each other. And that just comes as the season goes on. Once we do that, things will start falling in place and we’ll be OK.”

Contact Joe Jasinski at jjasinski@dcherald.com.




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