Wednesday, August 09, 2017

SPORTS STORY >> Lady ’Rabbits aim high

By RAY BENTONLeader sports editor

Expectations are high for the 2017 Lonoke volleyball team, and for good reason. This year’s squad has all but one varsity player returning from a team that put together a record season for the Lady Jackrabbits. Lonoke won a school-record 34 matches last season, going 34-5-1 and advancing to the quarterfinals of the Class 4A state tournament.

Head coach Laura Park is excited about the team’s ability and potential, and believes court cohesiveness is the key to an even better season this year.

“This team has as much, if not more, potential of any I’ve coached,” said Park. “Just from an ability standpoint, I feel like we have more than we’ve ever had. We’re not used to having much height, but we have three that are right at 6-feet this year. That always helps. We’ve got some very athletic girls and they have a lot of drive.

“Several years ago I had a couple of teams that didn’t have the ability this one does, but they had that confidence in each other that made them really good. If this group can find that kind of team unity, I honestly believe (a state championship) is in their grasp. And that’s what we’re working on really hard right now.”

Depth is another strength of this year’s team. Seniors Kayla Shelton, Maddie Pool and Kennedy White can all play anywhere on the front row, and will likely do so.

“That’s what we’re looking at right now,” Park said. “It may change some throughout the season. Kennedy is left-handed so that kind of makes her a natural fit on the right side, which is great because with her jumping ability she has a chance to be a really strong hitter for us. She’s also one of my better ones on the back row. She might play all the way around for us at times this year.”

Despite only being 5-7, senior Keiunna Walker was also one of the team leaders in kills last season. She’s also a standout basketball player and track athlete. She led the Lonoke basketball team in scoring the last two years, and was the 2016 Class 4A long jump state champion. Commitments to those other sports meant missing the Lady Jackrabbits’ two team camps during the offseason, but Walker will still be one of the key cogs to the team’s success.

“She’s one of those pure athletes that has college-level potential in whatever she decides to do,” Park said.

Experience at setter is a huge factor for many teams, and Lonoke has it. Junior Emily Armstrong started as a sophomore last season, and has improved in multiple ways since then.

“She played all the way around last year,” Park said. “This year she’s a little taller and she’s slimmed up a little bit more. She’s jumping better and moving around the floor faster. She’s gotten better.”

The one varsity starter lost from last season is libero Madison McFadden, and Park has two she thinks have the ability to take over that position.

“Her younger sister, Lindsey McFadden, who’ll be a senior, and a junior, Abby Kyzer, could both play either libero or be a defensive specialist for us,” Park said. “I think both of them can play either position, so we’re looking at both of them to see where they’ll help us the most.”

Shelton played the middle last year, but will likely move to the outside this season, leaving room for some new varsity faces to take over in the middle. Junior Madelyn Sherrill will join incoming sophomores Hope Newkirk and Ivey Bathrick on the inside.

“I feel like I saw a lot of improvement from my middles with moving Kayla to the outside,” Park said.

The Lady Jackrabbits played in the Licking Camp in Branson in early July, and then in the UALR camp two weeks ago. With so many returning players, the head Jackrabbit thinks this year’s team is ahead of where it was when it started last season.

“I feel like we are,” Park said. “I had a little bit of depth last year, but didn’t have the experience. When we went to, especially the Licking camp, where there were so many out-of-state teams from places that are more established in volleyball than Arkansas is, I think you could see that we were competing better.”