Tuesday, August 01, 2017

SPORTS STORY >> Rebuilding year for Lady Panthers

By RAY BENTON Leader sports editor

A lot of new faces will grace the court when the Cabot volleyball team steps onto it to begin the 2017 season, and they’ll have a new look as a large personnel turnover will also mean a new style of offense.

Cabot returns only three varsity players from last year’s 17-16 overall, 5-9 conference team that finished sixth in the 7A-Central. Lady Panther coach Kham Chanthaphasouk believes the relative inexperience could be offset by better team chemistry.

“We saw where one poll had us finishing fourth in the conference,” said Chanthaphasouk. “I’m not sure where that came from, but that would be a step in the right direction. It’s very hard to say when you have so much inexperience, but I think this team has the potential.”

Internal issues hampered a talented group that included a Division I signee and three other two-year starters. Offseason this summer hasn’t seen those same issues.

“So far we don’t really have girls that don’t get along,” Chanthaphasouk said. “We only have one senior this year. We had three juniors last year, so we lost a couple. There are more new girls this year than returning players, but the chemistry has been much better.”

Chanthaphasouk is switching his offense from a 6-2 to a 5-1, with junior Sydney Teer staying on the court as setter throughout the rotation.

“It’s the first time we’ll have a 5-1 setter in my three years to be here,” said Chanthaphasouk. “I’m excited about that because that’s my favorite offense. Sydney is getting more and more consistent, and I’m getting more and more comfortable with her in that role.”

Two of the three returning varsity players are outside hitters, and both are responsible for helping replace Arkansas State freshman Maddie Brown, including lone senior Mollie Johnson.

“Mollie has become a stronger player,” Chanthaphasouk said. “ She’s not as athletically gifted as Maddie, but she’s smarter at the net.”

Kallie Cavin will be on the right side as a key hitter.

“She really started to come along last season and got better and better,” Chanthaphasouk said. “She is going to play a very important role for us this year.”

Junior Morgan Brown returns in the middle, and at 6-feet, she is the tallest player on the team.

“She’s not yet as strong of a jumper as her sister, but she’s swinging pretty hard these days,” Chanthaphasouk said. “People will notice her improvement and better strength this year.”

Chanthaphasouk and assistant coach kept eight juniors and 12 sophomores on the roster this season, but the key varsity players are almost settled.

Solidly in that lineup will be junior Devyn Britt, who is only 5-7, but has strength and athleticism and play outside hitter. Ashley Wilkerson, who Chanthaphasouk says is just a shade under 6-feet, will help out in the middle.

Junior Caitlyn Rogers will be one of two liberos, and will be the starter. Junior Aria Bolman is an outside hitter that will see plenty of time on the floor, and junior Hayden Chapman will be a key defensive specialist.

There are also a few sophomores Chanthaphasouk believes has a chance to step in and earn more playing time if they continue to improve and pick up on the speed of varsity competition. The team went to a camp at Missouri State University in Springfield in early July. The team’s record at the camp was average, but the head coach felt it was a positive experience.

“For one thing, the competition there was very high level,” Chanthaphasouk said. “Being so young, I think we were a little overwhelmed when we first got there. But I’d do it again. I think it’s good for them. I was able to find things, weaknesses, that we have, and use those observations to tailor practices in order to address those things. And I feel like I’ve seen improvement. We’ll find out this week.”

Cabot is taking part in day two of a two-day team camp at Benton High School today.

“I’m curious to see of our drills we worked on are going to translate into competition.”

Last year’s conference co-champion, Conway, is again expected to lead the pack. Mount St. Mary’s has a lot back from last year’s fifth-place team. Fort Smith Southside is always strong, as is Northside.

North Little Rock, the other co-champion from 2016, is an unknown quantity this season. The Lady Wildcats lost a few seniors, but also several other varsity players that chose to give up volleyball.

Bryant, which finished seventh last year, was a young team and is expected to be better. Little Rock Central didn’t win a conference match last year, and was again picked last this preseason.

Cabot plays in a benefit jamboree at Conway on Aug. 17, and will officially begin the regular season on Aug. 22 at Benton. After that it’s to Batesville, the annual Spike Fest tournament and then the conference opener at Mount St. Mary. The Lady Panthers won’t play a home game until Sept. 5 against conference foe Fort Smith Southside.