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St. Paul's depth will be tested early this season

Mark Hazelwood • Aug 14, 2019 at 8:00 AM

NORWALK — With more than three decades of coaching, Nancy Miller has seen it all.

But there was a new first recently for the longtime St. Paul volleyball coach — and the news has only gotten worse since it happened.

Coming off another successful 2018 season with a 20-5 record and a Division IV district runners-up finish, the Lady Flyers were set to enter the upcoming 2019 season with 10 letterwinners and all but two starters returning.

Instead, the injured list has continued to grow over the spring and summer. The Lady Flyers will open the season with three players recovering from Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) injuries, including two who will be lost for the entire season.

"We've definitely encountered some long-term injuries you're never expecting to see," Miller said. "They have been a little heartbreaking. We lost (sophomore) Sarah (Matlack) at the Coaches for Coaches tournament — and that one stung because it was the first one to ever happen on our floor in my 30 years here. So that was very hard to watch that."

In a district semifinal girls basketball game on Feb. 28, senior middle hitter Anna Lukasko (5-feet-10) also went down with an ACL injury. Then just this week, sophomore hitter Megan Leibold (5-9) was also lost to an ACL injury on Tuesday in a scrimmage.

"We will definitely be a different team at the end of the season than the one we put out there in two weeks," Miller said. "Anna should be back in potentially six-to-eight weeks. I have to commend the kids though. On Tuesday when Megan went down, we flip-flopped a lot of stuff and I felt like we didn't skip a beat.

"The kids have done a wonderful job adapting to new positions while keeping the level of play real high," she added. "I'm just amazed at their ability to adapt right now with everything that has been thrown at them."

While missing Lukasko's 199 kills from last season, at least through the first month-plus, along with Matlack and Leibold, the Lady Flyers will likely rely heavily on the trio of senior hitter Megan Hammersmith (250 kills/227 digs), senior outside hitter Holly Powers (158 kills) and senior defensive specialist Kennedy Stang (431 digs/139 points).

However, Miller also has been very impressed by several others in camp. Among the other returning letterwinners are seniors Libby Dvorak and Sydney Herner, and sophomores Dyllan Knoll (239 points/152 digs) and Josie Skinn (165 points/160 digs).

The varsity roster is rounded out by the lone junior on the roster, hitter Stevie Ward, along with sophomores Karlie Rudolph, Presley Stang and Brooke Houck.

"Yes, we'll rely heavily on those three, but it's amazing how these kids have stepped up," Miller said. "That sophomore class is a force to be reckoned with on our floor. They complement that senior class really well. There will be a lot of new faces on our floor that didn't get as much playing time last year, but the amount of improvement — they surprise me every day.

"I enjoy this group so much," she added. "I enjoy being in the gym with them. Their work ethic alone since we've been together in June is just remarkable."

Adding to the injury complications is a shift in the schedule within the Firelands Conference. St. Paul opens the regular season at Monroeville on Aug. 20, then visits Crestview on Aug. 27 — and will be short-handed for both.

The Eagles topped the Lady Flyers in four games in the district title match after St. Paul had won two close regular season matches. The Cougars won 20 matches last season and also split with the Lady Flyers as both finished as co-FC champions.

The usual weekend tournaments at Sidney Lehman Catholic and Convoy Crestview are also on the schedule, along with non-league matches against Findlay and Edison.

However, the expectations won't change — which Miller thinks will be a plus. Since 2000, St. Paul has won 17 of a possible 19 FC championships. There have been six trips to the state semifinals in that same stretch, with two state titles and three state runners-up finishes along with five other district championship-winning seasons.

"It will be tough right out of the gate and we know that," Miller said. "We're taking it day-by-day right now and taking what improvements we can. There is a lot of potential with the nucleus we have. If we can keep improving a little bit day-by-day ... of course we're not going to go from 0-to-100 with all the injuries.

"But the attitudes, work ethic and the ability of this group to adapt to the situations we've faced already, I cannot say enough about them and what they have shown us with how they've handled it," she added.

Miller also noted the speed of her team on defensive stood out over the summer tournaments and scrimmages.

"There is a ton of potential with that, and it's probably one of the fastest defensive teams I've ever had," she said. "That's exciting and it really says a lot. They are very fun to watch, defensively."

With the season less than two weeks away, Miller said the Lady Flyers have been working on in-game aggressiveness.

"We're working on (being more aggressive) right from the start," she said. "That was a big talking point in practice this week. We're working on up front — we're different from the usual St. Paul volleyball of the past. We don't have as many big guns as what we've had in the past.

"But I've got a really good nucleus of smart players," she added. "We're working on hitting shots. They're learning when they can rip and roll and hit those shots. The dynamics of this group have been a lot of fun so far."

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