The Thunder Mountain volleyball team is in position to make some noise in the Southeast Conference with five returning starters, all in their third year with the program. And all are in agreement: It’s time for the Falcons to take the next step.
“Our girls have worked extremely hard for the past three seasons but this summer, they’ve taken it to another level,” TMHS coach Adriana Rodriguez said. “All of our starters went to back-to-back camps, and all of the hard work they’ve put in has really taken our program to the next level.
“They’re competitors this year.”
Thunder Mountain struggled two years ago, going winless in the program’s first year as the vast majority of its players took the court for the first time. The Falcons were much improved last season, picking up the first wins in school history, including their first conference win over Ketchikan.
“We struggled our freshman year. We’ve grown as a team and grown as friends together,” junior co-captain Jonelle Staveland said. “Now we’re connected on the court and we know where each other is going to be.”
For the first time, TMHS holds a big varsity experience edge over crosstown Juneau-Douglas, which returns just one player from last season’s fourth-place state finisher, and an advantage over Ketchikan, which lost four seniors, three of whom were full-time starters.
In addition, all six of Thunder Mountain’s projected starters are back again next season.
Junior middle blocker Michelle Manning is in her third year with the team, and she agreed that it’s light years ahead of where it began.
Over the weekend, the team got its feet wet in a preseason Jamboree in Ketchikan, and the girls are ready for the real thing tonight at 8 p.m. against JDHS at Thunder Mountain High School.
“It’s only the beginning, and we feel pretty good about how we played in Ketchikan,” Manning said. “We just need to move and talk. Our first few games, we didn’t play that well but we picked it up and we know what to do now. Our passing is good and we’re being a lot more aggressive.
“Our skill has definitely improved and we’re more of a team now, but we still have to keep working on it.”
Rodriguez said the weekend in Ketchikan was a good test to see where everyone is at.
“Our biggest struggle isn’t skill — we’re a very skilled team — it’s that mental block of two seasons of being the underdog,” she said. “They have to realize that they’re good enough to compete against these bigger teams.
“It was great to see them break out of that underdog mindset at the Jamboree, and we’re excited to see how they do this weekend.”
The return match against Juneau-Douglas, which has won the last 17 4A state tourney bids from Southeast, is at 7 p.m. Saturday at JDHS.
Rodriguez said the Falcons match up well with the Crimson Bears on paper.
“At this point, it’s not a matter of skill for our players. With all of the camps we went to, our girls are holding their own skill-wise with every other team,” she said. “We look at JDHS, and they have some very strong players. But our players are matched up with them just fine. They don’t have a (Sarah) Tarver that we just can’t compete against.
“We feel like we’re evenly matched and it’s just getting over the mental block.”
Juniors Kylie Ibias, a co-captain, and Natalie Montez are the two setters in the Falcons’ 6-2 offensive attack. Staveland, a junior, has a starting spot outside, with junior Darby Hickock and sophomores Makayla Pierce and Jenna Luhrs all getting a shot at the other outside hitter spot.
Manning and Kendra Wittwer will patrol the net in the middle, and sophomore Katrina Greenlief will add some back row fire power, rotating in as libero.
Rodriguez said she’s confident in her setters’ ability to spread the ball around, and Ibias is a completely different player from a year ago.
Ibias said the team has added several new wrinkles to the offense.
“We’ve been working on ... a lot of quick sets, and it’s going to be a lot of fun I think,” she said. “Last year, we struggled talking and we’ve really been working on that. Before the season started I was working with my hitters, getting (our hits) down faster and our timing down.
Rodriguez said the team’s versatility and ability to rotate players around the court will be one of the Falcons’ biggest strengths.
“Most of our girls will play all the way around, which is great,” she said. “We pulled Kendra and Michelle out a lot from the back row last year, but we took them to camp with us and their passing has gotten so much better.”
Rodriguez said she and assistant Arnold Ibias also have learned a tremendous amount, and have advanced their approach and techniques in working with the players.
“We’re pretty new to coaching at this level, and we’re learning even more than the girls when we go to these camps,” she said. “We’ve completely revamped our approach to coaching passing and our blocking style. We’ve changed to a swing block, which allows the girls to cover a lot more ground and cover the net. And we’ve changed how our defense runs.
“This season, we’ve pretty much changed and tweaked everything. We’re not a beginning team anymore.”