Chad Coupland is optimistic.
The Central Valley High School coach sees the future laid out before his young volleyball team: This weekend’s annual Crossover Classic tournament, a nonleague match at Sandpoint on Tuesday and a three-game stretch to end the Greater Spokane League season.
“This year, perhaps more than in the past few, a team that gets hot at just the right time can do a lot of damage in the playoffs,” he said. “I hope that can be us.”
The team is young and talented. Two of the team’s three top hitters are juniors and the third is a sophomore. The team’s libero is a junior standout who made 44 digs in just the past two games.
First, however, the team must get healthy, he said.
“We’ve been struggling with injuries all year,” he explained. “We lost our best player, Paula Jennings, to a freak (anterior cruciate ligament) injury. That hurt – she was hitting the ball so well and was poised to really take her game to a new level for her senior season. She went up and hit a ball and came down and the knee popped. It wasn’t anything that she did, necessarily. The knee just decided it was time to pop.”
Jennings faces a nine-month recovery. Her coach hopes she can be back in time to participate in her second sport, track.
“I was with her when she found out she was done with volleyball,” Coupland said. “There was a lot of anger there, justifiably so. We’re still working with her and she’s still contributing as one of our team captains. We’ll help her get through her rehab and get her back out there playing club volleyball and, hopefully, get her a chance to play in college, because she certainly has that kind of talent.”
Junior Mikayla Ness, the team’s go-to offensive weapon, currently is struggling with a painful case of shin splints, but is willing to play through the pain.
“I’ve had them since June,” Ness said. “I was able to take about two weeks off after the end of my club season and before the start of school. They went away for a while, but I stopped icing them regularly and they came back.
“At this point I’d rather not take time off. A game here or there isn’t going to make any difference. I want to keep playing.”
The original plan was for Ness to be the counterbalance for Jennings in the Central Valley attack. Opposing defenses couldn’t overplay one without leaving the other open.
“I was so looking forward to playing with Paula – I love playing with her and I really wish it could have worked out,” Ness said. “She’s been so helpful this year – she’s been a big help to me. If I start to drop my arm, for example, she’s the one that notices it and she’ll tell me. It’s like having another coach there.”
“Mikayla has just done a great job stepping up and filling that new role,” her coach said. “It’s a big responsibility to be the go-to player. Not only are you the primary weapon on offense, you’re also assigned to block the opposing team’s best hitter. Right now, her timing is a little off on the block, but I’m certain she’ll find it again.”
With Jennings out, junior Kendra Reilly and 5-foot-10 sophomore Taylor Butters both have stepped up their game.
“I’m so proud of the way they’ve both been playing,” Coupland said. “Taylor, especially, has done a great job. For a sophomore to step up the way she has is pretty special. She will be an outstanding player before she’s done.”
The Bears are tied with Ferris for third with four wins in six league games, but only after a stunning loss to the Saxons last week.
“I don’t know what happened in that game,” Coupland explained. “I don’t know where my team went. The team that showed up for that game certainly wasn’t my squad. I don’t know who they were.”
The coach is ready to write off that loss as a one-off, he said. The team came back and played well in a loss to perennial power Mead Tuesday.
“I was pleased with the way they came back and played,” he said. “I’m sure some of it is the Mead mystique – I think sometimes that it gets into them that they aren’t supposed to beat Mead because they have that great bigger-than-life reputation.”
The challenge, the coach said, is at the net, where the team’s young hitters are struggling to find their defensive timing. With the block a hit-or-miss weapon, the weight falls to a sterling defensive back row.
“Our defense is doing a great job back there,” Coupland said. “(Junior libero) Delany Fischer is digging everything and (senior) Andrea Heartburg is doing a great job. But when the block isn’t working, it’s hard for them to know where to play. They’re assigned to cover one spot, but there’s a wide-open space that’s not covered, so where do they go?”
Coupland said his plan for this weekend’s tournament is to concentrate on his own team and not worry about opponents.
“I’m hoping to rest some players who need it and get a good look at some of my young players,” he explained. “It’s all about us and how we’re playing right now.”
Coupland is high on his team.
“The best thing about this team is that they’re playing hard and giving all they have every game,” he said. “This is a great group and I’m enjoying them. If you play hard and give it your all, that’s all you can ask.”