Big jump for volleyballers from JV to Varsity creates coaches with conundrums

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By Scott Akanewich

Each and every volleyball player who steps onto the court for the Lady Panthers has gone through a rigorous vetting process – one which has lasted for years, in fact – to determine when the time is right for them to make their debut for the varsity squad.

Only after a lengthy breakdown of a player’s mental and physical acumen by the coaching staff is it decided if they should play alongside the big girls or get more seasoning on junior varsity.

According to Liberty Hill head coach Gretchen Peterson, it’s not always as cut and dry a decision as it sometimes seems on the surface.

“Mostly it really depends on what a player needs more time doing,” said Peterson. “Some young players need a lot of reps during practice, while others simply need to see court time during matches. We try to get all of our players a lot of reps in both, but with the quality of competition we have within our own team, it’s tough sometimes.”

Perhaps a particular player has the skill set needed to compete at the varsity level, but needs actual playing time to further hone those skills – something that won’t necessarily happen if there are two or even three veterans ahead of one on the depth chart.

As a result, Peterson and her staff are faced with a dilemma.

Is it more beneficial for a player to be on the varsity and be able to practice with and against the program’s best players day in and day out despite limited playing time during matches or should the player continue on as a starter on the JV and gain valuable match time, albeit against inferior competition?

Junior outside hitter Maddi Rowley is an example of this very situation, said Peterson.

“Maddi wasn’t a starter for us last season, but she got a lot of playing time,” she said, of Rowley, who found herself behind seniors Ashley Nelson and Emily Huppee and junior Kindsee Escamilla at her position. “We’re very lucky in we always have a lot of players who are ready to move up.”

With that being the case, players compete fiercely to fill the available places on the roster, said Peterson.

“For us, it’s a competition every day,” she said. “All the girls compete and in doing so, make each other better, so whoever gets that spot is going to be much better off for it – a kid on the JV has to really push and challenge to get on the varsity.”

Peterson, along with junior varsity head coach Wayne Munger and freshman head coach Kristen Brewer, regularly conduct evaluations of which players are doing what as to how it relates to possibly moving up the talent ladder, she said.

“Every year is different,” said Peterson. “As coaches, we all have decisions to make. We talk every day about how practice went and bounce ideas off each other. Some players need a faster pace of play in order to be challenged and further develop, while others just need to be on the court.”

As a result, difficult decisions can sometimes leave unhappy campers around the volleyball fire – in which case Peterson hopes each player can gain an understanding of their particular situation and move forward in a productive manner – not only for their own betterment, but also for the program’s sake.

“We really try to be completely honest with all of our players,” she said. “We can’t make everyone happy, but we try to make it clear for them to see where they’re fitting in. If we get a kid who never gets on the floor and gripes about it, that can affect the entire team because at that point that player is saying they’re more important then the team. Nobody wants to sit on the bench, but ultimately, they have to buy in and be better because of it.”

Peterson said many times, she will present a plan to a player, then let the individual decide what’s best in order to get that all-important buy-in.

“We want kids who are going to love the game and want to get better,” she said. “We’re never going to force a situation on a kid which is unwanted by the player. We all deserve to be happy, but at some point, we also need to think about the program and that’s fine.”

Usually, preseason tournaments against rugged competition are the proving grounds that can be used to gauge talent in this way, but with the pandemic-shortened schedule this fall, Peterson and her staff will only have a pair of scrimmages to evaluate the roster before the ball goes up for real in the regular-season opener at Copperas Cove on Sept. 15, meaning they need to be right on with their decisions in short order, said Peterson.

“In the early part of the season, you want to be careful, but you also want positions to be challenged when it’s not easy,” she said. “We expect a lot out of all our players.”

At the moment, the Lady Panthers are extremely strong at the setter position, as juniors Emma Becker and Emma Parsons, were named district most valuable player and setter of the year, respectively, last season, which means regardless of how well a young setter on the JV might be doing, it’s certainly going to be difficult to break into the varsity starting lineup for the next two seasons.

Peterson said she likes to have four outside hitters, three middle blockers, two setters and three defensive specialists on her roster, which leaves little room for newcomers to crack the lineup.

In turn, this provides Peterson a chance to take advantage of a player’s skills by possible converting them to a new position, she said.

“For example, if a setter is also a good passer of the ball, we can move her around to different places on the court,” said Peterson. “You might be fifth in line to be a setter, so we talk to our kids about learning how to play all positions.”

A prime example of this methodology is junior defensive specialist Haley Kuhlmann, who was converted to the position last season as a sophomore – one which she had never played before – and went on to garner district Newcomer of the Year honors in her rookie varsity campaign.

However, Peterson said this brand of success is only possible if the player makes the conscious decision to accept a position change wholeheartedly.

“You have to know what your individual skills are and have the desire to develop them,” she said. “You can’t just sit there and say, ‘Well, I’m an outside hitter and that’s it.’ You have to be well-rounded and have a good understanding of the situation.”

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