By JOSH SIGLER KOKOMO TRIBUNE
---- — RUSSIAVILLE — With the graduation of five seniors off of last season’s squad, Kokomo volleyball coach Jason Watson was eager to see how his team would fare in its season opener Tuesday night against a fledgling Western squad.
From all indications, this fresh crop of Wildkats appears to be adjusting just fine. Kokomo improved as the night went on, downing the senior-less Panthers in straight sets 25-18, 25-14, 25-9 in Richard R. Rea Gymnasium.
“I’m proud of the girls for the way they stepped up and really embraced that leadership role,” Watson said. “[Junior] Miranda Ogle took charge after a timid start in her first time as the full-time setter. Our three seniors — Schuyla [Sharp], Alanis [Jones] and Tori [Lauderbaugh] stepped up and played a strong role. And, I feel like our younger girls stepped up and got aggressive after they got rid of the butterflies and realized this is the same stuff we’ve been doing in practice.”
Ogle dished 16 assists in the victory, fueling a Kokomo front line that saw a plethora of opportunities. Sophomore middle hitter Kirsten Frey led the charge with nine kills, freshman outside hitter Brooke Smith added six, while Lauderbaugh and Jones both belted five.
Kokomo built commanding leads early in each set, going up 17-6 in the first, 18-8 in the second and 19-7 in the third, feasting on a Western attack that never could get on track.
“I think we need to boost up our confidence a little bit,” Western coach Nicky Rodman said. “Being so young, I think that might’ve been a disadvantage [Tuesday] — obviously it won’t be in the future. We just were off [Tuesday] — not what we see in practice and not what we saw in our scrimmage. We’re a way better team than we showed [Tuesday].”
Tran and Ogle led the Kokomo back row with six digs apiece, while junior Ceyanne Thomas added five. Tran set the single-season record for digs last year as a sophomore, but it was her serving that stood out Tuesday, pounding out six aces in the win. Thomas added a trio of aces, while Lauderbaugh, Jones, Frey and Smith each added a pair in the win for the Wildkats, who pounded out 17 aces as a team.
The stout service attack for Kokomo further compounded Western’s attack woes. The Panthers produced 10 kills in 57 total attacks, including a 2-for-18 clip in the third set. In contrast, Kokomo produced 26 kills in 66 attacks on the night, including a 12-for-23 mark in the final set.
“We definitely served strong and aggressive, and pushed them off the net any time they got out of system and gave us a free ball,” Watson said. “We were able to turn those into attacks. We stayed on them and didn’t let up, and that kept them from gaining any momentum in the match, especially late.”
Hayley Mills and Amanda Seaman led Western with three kills each. Shelby Gilbert had a team-high eight digs, while Madi Mendenhall added five. Setter Emily Jones finished with six assists.
Having a number of non-senior players contribute at a high level at this point in the season is doing wonders for Kokomo’s confidence level, Watson feels.
“I will say that this is our first match, so I won’t get too high or too low,” he added. “We have our tough invitational coming up [Saturday] with some Lafayette teams coming in, so we are going to have to be playing much better and get some of these little kinks out if we’re going to continue to win. I’m happy overall, but we’ve got a lot of work to do.”