There’s no arguing that the Mead Panthers are perennially a well-oiled volleyball machine.
But after coming home empty-handed from last year’s State 4A tournament the, Panthers have something more to prove this season.
“We were ranked in the top three all season, but we didn’t perform when we got there and that happened to a lot of ranked teams. A few of them went one-two-barbeque,” said head coach Judy Kight – no stranger to celebrating a state championship.
Her last one was in 2009, and prior to that Kight was maestro to the Panthers’ five straight state title run that began in 2003.
But this year, with this team, Kight feels like her group is more in tune. That’ll happen with 11 seniors that have been playing together since long before they became Panthers. That includes co-captains and middle blockers Hannah Zalopany and Paige Montgomery – both All-Greater Spokane League first-team picks last season and both state champions as freshmen in 2009.
“They’ve been my captains for two years now and they just have a really strong presence on the floor,” Kight said. “They know what it’s like to win, and they know what it’s like to not place as well.”
And they’re obviously regarded as leaders. But they aren’t the only ones.
“With 11 seniors, every one of them is a leader in their own right with this group – that’s incredibly rare.”
At the core is setter Jonni Dorr, who had 40 assists in a sweep of Shadle Park on Tuesday night.
“Forty assists,” stressed Kight, “in three games. I mean, that’s reliable.”
Kight runs a 5-1 offense with Dorr after fellow senior Meghan Elmore broke her fibula during tryouts this summer. Dorr and Elmore would have been running a 6-2, or splitting time in a 5-1 – giving Kight three options.
“That was hugely disappointing for many reasons, first and foremost because she’s worked so hard and has so much to offer this team and it’s hard for a senior to sit and watch from the bench when she would be seeing a lot of time on the floor,” Kight said. “We’re hoping she will be back at the end of the season, for playoffs.”
Kight’s core of outside hitters includes Taylor Ellingsen, whom Kight said can “lead on kills, aces and digs on any given night,” Dana Norris, a second-team pick last season, and Maddy Underwood.
Switching from middle to right side is Mackenzie McPhee, and a trio of defensive specialists – Morgan Douglass, Natalie Kassa and Sierra Crook – split time as libero, seeing at least one game in each match.
“All of the seniors, within their positions, are almost interchangeable,” Kight said. “And the thing is, we’re not even clicking like we will later on. Things will become more fluid later in the season.”
The Panthers will certainly be tested on Thursday night when they face the Mt. Spokane Wildcats – picked to finish second in the GSL.
“They’ve got a good core back, and that game – especially – is just going to be ridiculous,” Kight said. “I mean, it’s homecoming, it’s our rival school, we’re competitive teams and it’s the greatest high school athletic environment you could ask for.
“You aren’t going to be able to hear a thing in that gym on Thursday night.”
But the loudest noise will be made on the court, and it would be surprising – down the stretch – if it weren’t Kight’s Panthers. With 11 seniors, Kight is carrying 16 on the roster, with three juniors and two sophomores.
“Every year is so unique and so special, and this year is very unique in that we have the amount of seniors we have,” Kight said. “And last year? Yeah, that definitely plays a part. The girls want to erase that this year. It is definitely driving them.
“I’m more driven by the fact that I want them to get to the point where they play better than they thought they ever could and they do it together as a team. There’s just nothing like that feeling of ending that state tournament on a high.”