Panther power: MP volleyball has a fierce attack
Lots of teams look up to the Mt. Pleasant volleyball players … literally.
Height is an advantage in volleyball, and the Panthers have it. But they also have the talent to go with it.
Besides that, they get along well as a group — and they've had a pretty good time together this season as they played their way to a record of 29-4.
They're going to need everything they have — height, talent, teamwork and momentum — as they face their toughest challenge of the season tonight: Class 4A No. 2 Solon.
It's Shayleigh Smith that stands the tallest among the Panther players — exactly six feet, 3 1/4 inches tall, she says.
Kelsi Phipps is 6-foot-1, while Lydia Smith and Taryne Shull are six feet even and Mary Wester is 5-10 1/2.
Brianne Hotlkamp, who transferred to Mt. Pleasant from Holy Trinity last year, is 5-6 1/2.
“At Holy Trinity, I was one of the taller girls. Now I look up to everyone in the huddle,” Holtkamp said.
Even one of the Mt. Pleasant setters, Hannah Becker, stands nearly six feet tall.
It’s an intimidating group to look at from the other side of the net.
“I know when we see other teams, I look to see how tall they are,” Shull said. “I would be intimidated by us.”
Shayleigh Smith guesses that it might be intimidating, but can’t say for sure.
“I’ve never had to look up at anyone; I don’t know what it would be like,” she said.
Height is certainly an advantage in volleyball — taller girls can get higher above the net in hitting and blocking. And the Mt. Pleasant girls can really get some air.
“On some of my quick sets to Taryne (Shull), her legs are even with my shoulders,” setter Ashley Loving said.
And if they can get high enough, blocking is rendered useless.
“Shayleigh (Smith) can hit over the blocks,” Holtkamp said.
But when Smith — and her teammates — are doing the blocking, its a different story.
“Our middles (Shull and Phipps) are so fast — they can be blocking on the left side, and then come right over to block with me,” Shayleigh Smith said.
And the blocking is a big help to their back row.
“(Good blocks) take so much pressure off the back row,” said Holtkamp, who plays all the way around.
“Sometimes the ball goes off the block, and then it’s harder to get to, but (overall), the blocking definitely helps — it takes away a lot of the power,” libero Brianne Potts said.
For the Panthers, there’s plenty of power to go around. They have five different players with well over 100 kills in the regular season.
Phipps led the team with 181 kills and Shull had 173. Holtkamp had 138, Wester had 131 and Lydia Smith had 119.
And that’s not all. Shayleigh Smith had 60 kills, Becker, 36, and Potts, 24.
“It’s great to have that variety of girls that can all get it down,” Becker said. “Height’s not everything, but it does play a factor. Everyone has strengths and when you put them all together in a game, it really shows.”
The seniors on the team have been waiting for this season.
“We always said last year that we’d be good this year — we were looking forward to this year,” Shull said.
“We knew our senior year would be very fun,” Shayleigh Smith said.
They are two of eight players who are in their last volleyball season at Mt. Pleasant.
For Lydia Smith, her final season brought a chance to step up.
“Senior year, I wanted to prove myself to everybody,” she said. “I wanted to be one of the kill leaders; I didn’t want to be overlooked.”
And Coach Jeff Schulz makes sure that everyone has a chance.
He set up the Panther attack so that everyone on the court is used — middle or outside, front row or back row, tall or short.
“Last year, our power was outside,” Phipps said.
That power often came in the form of Elinor Krieger-Coble, an outside hitter who led the Panthers with 223 kills on the season.
This year, the sets go all over.
“Last year, I set only the front row,” Loving said. “Now I have the back row, too.”
“(Opponents) don’t know where it’s coming from,” Holtkamp added.
It’s an attack that’s difficult to defend — especially if the opponents choose to focus on just a couple of the tallest hitters.
“Brianne Holtkamp is our shortest hitter, and she’s phenomenal,” Lydia Smith said.
She also hits from every position — including the back row. And Potts has put down a few kills from behind the 10-foot line as well.
“I have hit before,” Potts said. “But then I started to realize I was short. So to be able to get that kill, to get that rush, it’s a lot of fun.”
But first of all, Potts is a passer. She leads the team by a long way with 421 digs on the season. Holtkamp is second with 261.
And they play a key role in the Mt. Pleasant attack.
“We wouldn’t be where we are without our passers,” Lydia Smith said.
“This year, the passing has come a long way,” Loving said, and Becker agreed: “The passers have been doing a really good job of getting it right to me.”
And the two setters are the next step.
“If the setters weren’t as good as they are, we wouldn’t have the stats we have,” Shayleigh Smith said.
“The setters have to adjust to each person — they have to know who has a quick approach, or who likes it off the net,” Holtkamp said.
Of course, the ball isn’t always exactly where the hitter wants it.
“Nothing’s perfect,” Loving said. “Hitters like the sets different ways, but they adjust to me, too. It’s really satisfying to see them hit something that I set.”
And Loving is confident that they will hit it, and hit it hard.
“It’s nice that the setters have confidence in us,” Lydia Smith said. “At times in volleyball, you can really get down on yourself.”
But even if the hitters have an error, the setters go right back to them.
“It lets us just have the mindset, ‘I’ll get the next one,’” Wester said. “We do a lot of hitting in practice, so we know we have the talent — and the muscle memory — to put it down.”
“Any one of them can fix a mistake,” Loving said. “They shake it off and go right back at it.”
The Panthers trust each other on the court.
“I know there are five other girls out there to help me,” Potts said.
“We all contribute something to the mix,” Loving said.
Each person has a role — Shull and Phipps agree that there isn’t exactly one team leader.
“We’re more of a family this year,” Phipps said.
“There are some people that dominate in the front row, and some in the back row,” Potts said. “But we’re all close. We’ve been playing together since seventh or eighth grade.”
“We all get along really well,” Becker said. “We’re crazy, but its really fun.”
The team will face it’s toughest opponent of the season in tonight’s game against Solon, and the Panthers will bring all they’ve got against the Spartans.
“I think we can beat them if we play our game,” Shull said.
“We’re working on different things with blocks,” Shayleigh Smith added. “We’ve haven’t gotten the opportunity to show everything we can do yet.”
Game time is at 7 p.m. in Solon.