By Chris Parker
Springfield Catholic Volleyball has been one of the top programs in the region for the past three years. The Lady Irish have won 92 games with two district titles and a third-place finish at state in 2020 during that span. Last year, Catholic ended a game short of four straight finals with a quarter-final loss to Strafford.
Sydney Wheeler takes over as head coach from Catholic athletic director Dan Evans this year. She graduated from Ozark in 2011 and played collegiately at Missouri S&T and Missouri Southern. She spent the last two seasons as an assistant at Catholic.
The Irish will get a new look in Wheeler’s first season after graduating from a senior group that included All-State selections Cherie Sabini and Hallie Cook as well as All-Conference second-team selection Ashlyn Witthar.
“We definitely graduated a special group of seniors last year,” Wheeler said. “This group has set a new standard for our program. Not only did they bring impressive physical talent, but their presence on the pitch was what was unmatched. They could turn the momentum of a match just by the way they energized their team and took control of situations.
All-state senior Grace O’Reilly returns to lead the Lady Irish. The Long Beach State commitment had a team record 363 wins last year. O’Reilly, also a state high jump champion, led the team in service receptions with 314 in 2021.
“Grace will undoubtedly see more attempts this year as the most experienced player on the court. The key will be finding a balance between moving the ball and feeding it when it’s on. It will be fun to play with the attack and using her speed and agility in different sets,” Wheeler said. “Grace has always been a confident kid, but it was really special to see how she grew as a leader this summer. She encourages each child during our summer training and strives to include them in drills and team building activities. The best compliment a coach can receive is a player’s attitude, and we have already received compliments on how she carries herself on the pitch and how she raises her teammates.
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Ava Walters, an honorable mention all-conference junior, also returns after dishing out 1,007 assists last year as a setter.
“Ava improved the speed and consistency of her sets. She worked this summer and went to several camps to prepare for the fall,” Wheeler said. “Having her as an experienced player on the pitch will be crucial as we work to develop players in our attack.”
Junior Kennedi Roubal and second Kennedy Hartman both return after going all 98 sets last year.
Roubal is a defensive specialist who made 156 digs last year.
“Kennedi Roubal will provide leadership in the back row as a returning defensive specialist,” Wheeler said. “She will see time in the front row as we will use her athleticism. She is a stable player who does not back down from a challenge.
Hartman will transition to a six-rotation role this year after posting 219 digs and 280 server receptions last year.
“Kennedy Hartman will return to the heart of our back row,” Wheeler said. “She saw the timeshare last year as a libero and we plan to use her for six rotations this year, bringing consistency and courage to our defense and service reception. She plays what I like to describe as “Dog Bone” defense, she’ll go after a ball no matter what and she’s tough to beat. She is super fast and reads well. It’s a dynamic combo for a defensive player.
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Sophomore Tori Majorahn and rookie Millie Bauer will be two players who should step up and contribute in college.
“Tori Majorahn was an important part of our JV team last year as a libero. She will bring consistency and strong serve-receiving skills to our varsity team this year. She will also see time on the front line so that we aim to have a consistent hitter on the pin,” Wheeler said. “Millie Bauer is an exciting addition to our frontline lineup. She brings height and athleticism to the net. She’s connecting well with Ava this summer and I’m excited to see how their setter-hitter relationship develops.
Catholic will travel to Willard for a jamboree on Aug. 23 to take on host Tigers, Reeds Spring and El Dorado Springs. The Lady Irish open the regular season on September 1 at Parkview.