Lady Panthers look to knock off Rowan

Fleming County’s Gracie Fearin spikes a ball during a 16th Region Tournament quarterfinal match against Russell, Thursday, Oct. 23, 2017, in Vanceburg. - Jared MacDonald, The Ledger Independent

Rowan County has reigned supreme in the 61st District for six straight years, but Fleming County, Bath County and Menifee County are hoping this is the year a new champion will be named for the first time since 2011. The Valkyries went on to claim the 16th Region title in 2017, but will be replacing many key players from last year’s team, much like the others in the district.

Here’s a brief look at each team in the 61st District:

Fleming County

Fleming County has had some of their best teams in program history since Nick Thrasher took over in 2016, but unfortunately for the Lady Panthers, so has six-time defending 61st District champion Rowan County.

“We’ve been – our district – in a unique situation over the last, I would say, the last three to five years, where we’ve have had some of the best teams at Fleming County, but our district rivals have had some of the best teams they’ve had,” said Thrasher. “The team we had last year, for example, should have been a district title team every other given year, but it’s one of those things where you hope your team is progressing forward and the program is progressing forward. Timing is so important when it comes to trophies with the ‘success’ when talking about trophies.”

Thrasher feels his team this year could be the one to break through, despite losing several key pieces to last year’s team including Jasmine Hilander, Katie Jett, Erin Maher, Kayla McCleese and Alexis Story.

“This particular season – I think I’ve said this every year, so you’ll probably think I’m kooky and don’t know what I’m talking about – I think this is a better team than I had last year.”

The Lady Panthers will return two of their kill leaders from a season ago in Gracie Fearin, a rising junior, and Analeise Mitchell, a rising senior. Mitchell was second on the team in kills last year with 185, second only to Maher’s 189, and Fearin was third with 110.

“They’re the only two kids I can find in the stats we’ve kept that have averaged triple figures in hitting percentage in their career,” said Thrasher. “Volleyball is a game of mistakes and with a high hitting percentage, you’re not only getting kills, but fewer errors.”

Thrasher is also expecting big things from incoming freshman Macie Hughes, as well as Grace Morris, who hasn’t played in a few years since moving from Colorado. Returning from last year’s squad are Shelby Litzler, Lauren Moran, Carley Dunaway, Kathryn Burke, Abby Thomas and Ashley Watson.

“The things most important are, in my opinion, ball control, serving and passing. For those skill levels, this could be one of the best teams,” said Thrasher. “We’ve had great athletes come through the program, but all of the pieces haven’t really fit together like they have this year.

“The thing that’s funny about volleyball that not every sport shares, is in order to be successful, it takes six athletes breathing as one with one heartbeat to feel the rhythm of the game,” added Thrasher. “The last few years we’ve had four and five athletes on the same page, but now I feel we have eight or nine. It’s been a very good thing.”

Fleming County is looking forward to hosting the Seed-4-Success tournament early in the season, before heading to the Thoroughbred Smash at Lafayette and the Fillie Fall Fling at Harrison County in September. They’re also looking forward to facing typical 16th Region powers, like Raceland, Ashland Blazer and district rival Rowan County to see how they stack up.

“I think they’re hungry. This senior class was in Rowan County’s league when they were freshmen. They know and believe they can beat this team. That’s just enormous,” said Thrasher. “With that being said, when you’re winners, you expect to win and losers expect to lose. We’ve changed our mentality with the way we approach the game a little bit. Rowan County has not had to change their mentality.”

Rowan County

Rowan County looks to make it seven straight titles in the 61st District and a repeat in the 16th Region, but they’ll be doing it with many new faces after graduating the core they had for the last three years which included two setters, two middles, one outside hitter, one right side hitter and a libero, according to coach Steve Walters.

They’ll return outside hitter Morgan Adams, middle hitter Skyler Toy, defensive specialist Ashlynn Powell, setter Mikale Smith, right side hitter Zayda Greene and outside hitter Kylie Breeze from the varsity roster last season.

“Morgan, Skyler (at right side), and Ashlynn saw considerable varsity time last year. The others saw more limited time, but did get some,” said Walters in an email to The Ledger Independent. “All of them except Morgan were basically starters on our undefeated Junior Varsity team last year.”

Rowan County finished 28-11 last season, and although they’ll have many players that didn’t see regular varsity action, they enter the season with experience.

“Keys to success will be how quickly they adjust to the speed of the varsity game and how quickly they can gel with one another. We have, in addition to those mentioned above, several talented underclassmen and even middle schoolers that will be playing up on the varsity level,” said Walters. “However, practically all of them spent the off-season playing club ball. So that will help their transition.”

The Valkyries have tournaments throughout the season at places like Elizabethtown, Woodford County and Lafayette, but are also looking forward to matchups with district rival Fleming County before the postseason begins, where they’ll look to continue their dominance.

“I think we will stack up fairly well against the 61st. Bath and Menifee will still be fairly young and Fleming graduated several key members. So in many ways we will be all in the same boat,” said Walters. “Obviously, we have a goal of winning the District and Region again. Given the talent level of the teams, we think that we have as good a shot as anyone.”

Bath County

The Lady Cats will be in a transition season this summer with a new head coach and several pieces moving around.

Lenny Pozayt has taken over the program and will deal with the loss of four seniors from last year’s roster, as well as Nakita Cooper, who they thought would be a key returning player this season. Cooper, who Pozayt described as a “consistent spiker, blocker and server,” moved to Texas.

They’ll have two rising seniors in Skylar Copher and Talyn Alderman this year, and the first-year Bath County coach is expecting big things from them.

“They both are truly amazing girls that are always willing to step up and share their experiences with the younger girls,” said Pozayt in an email to The Ledger Independent.

The Lady Cats went 5-30 last season and will be looking to improve their record through team play this fall. As a new head coach with the program, Pozayt is hoping to learn the competition in the area and build relationships to help the program progress.

“Our success will rely on our talking and working as a team on the court. It takes six players to be a good team. We all need to work together as one,” said Pozayt. “If we can accomplish this I would consider it a successful season.”

Menifee County

Menifee County returns all but three players from last year’s team, the first in school history, which posted a 6-19 record.

“Considering that we are only beginning our second season, most of our players will simply be better because they have a year of experience and have worked extremely hard,” said Menifee County coach Timothy Hacker in an interview to The Ledger Independent. “We have several girls on the team that are athletic. Therefore, we are seeing improvement with many of them on a daily basis.”

Hacker believes he has a solid nucleus returning in setter and defensive specialist Deanna McKinney, outside hitter Emma Hacker and setter and defensive specialist Laura Baker. He’s also depending on defensive specialist Jillian Brown, outside hitter Marisa Brown, outside hitter Kayla Noble, defensive specialist Hannah McIntosh, setter Caleigh White and defensive specialist Haley Sparkman. Newcomers include outside hitters in McKenna Patrick and Alexia Donathan.

“Since we are still in our infancy as far as a program, we realize that the other programs in our district and throughout the region are more established and have built a good base with which to teach younger players their system,” said Hacker. “Our goal is simply for every player to be better than she was last year and if that translates into an improvement over the six wins that we had last year, it will simply be a by-product of the work each girl is putting in on a daily basis.”

Despite still being a new program in comparison with the other three in the district, Menifee County is looking to gain experience with each regular season game on the schedule in hopes of making some noise when the district tournament comes around.

“Our girls have a new found love and they look forward to every chance to get better. I have explained to our players that we can’t try to use the excuse that we are still a young program because other schools don’t really care how long we’ve had a team,” said Hacker. “The goals for our team are to improve with each game and to be playing our best as a team when the district tournament arrives.”

Fleming County’s Gracie Fearin spikes a ball during a 16th Region Tournament quarterfinal match against Russell, Thursday, Oct. 23, 2017, in Vanceburg. County’s Gracie Fearin spikes a ball during a 16th Region Tournament quarterfinal match against Russell, Thursday, Oct. 23, 2017, in Vanceburg. Jared MacDonald, The Ledger Independent
Previewing volleyball in the 61st District