For the last two seasons, the Indian River High School varsity volleyball program has flourished in the newly formed Southern Division of the Henlopen Conference. They won the division in 2005, and placed second last season behind the Lake Forest Lady Spartans with a 13-6 record.
And just when the Lady Indians were beginning to get comfortable in their new division, it was eliminated, due to a reshuffling of the conference.
Smyrna and Milford High School swapped divisions from South to North, and vice versa, but the move left the Southern Conference short a team because Milford doesn’t have a volleyball program. So the sport was rolled back into a single Henlopen Conference, making it much more difficult for the smaller schools to compete for state tournament bids.
“It’s a harder goal to reach,” Lady Indians head coach Jess Dodd said of hacking their way through a larger pool of teams to make the state tournament. “Now we have to compete against bigger schools with more athletes to draw from, and that’s always difficult — but that’s why we play. That’s our challenge. We’re going to keep shooting for a conference championship.”
And though the winning attitude hasn’t waned, the Lady Indians starting lineup has. One-third of their starting lineup is now gone, with the departure of a pair of all-conference selections in forward Renee Davidson (first team) and setter Hilary Hawkins (second team) to graduation. And while Davidson will be hard to replace, Dodd explained that losing a setter for the third consecutive year will be a more difficult void to fill.
“It’s always difficult to replace players like that,” Dodd said, referring to Davidson and Hawkins. “But I’m certain that we have players that are capable of stepping up. It’s too early at this point to know who will do it, but I have no worries that we will. Though, to a point, some positions are harder to pick up than others.
“Setter is the hardest [position to fill],” he explained. “They are just like a quarterback, and when you lose your setter and have to start fresh — that’s tough.”
Fortunately, Dodd and the Lady Indians believe they have a suitable replacement in senior Nyssa Altman, an honorable mention all-conference selection last year.
“She likes the challenge,” Dodd said. “She’ll play in any condition when I need her, and that’s the type of player she is.
“She’ll do a great job for us [this year],” he said.
Altman won’t be alone. She will have a host of returning players joining her. She’s flanked by fellow seniors Hayley Brennan (a second-team all-conference selection last year) and Anne Marie Brown, as well as juniors Katie Farber, Erica Cook and Amber Nash. In addition, Dodd noted that a few underclassmen could see playing time on the varsity level.
“There have been a few that have shown potential and have practiced a lot with the varsity team,” he said. “They’ll probably bounce back and forth between the junior varsity and varsity teams.”
The Indian River team opened up their preseason Saturday, Aug. 25, with a play-day at James M. Bennett Senior High in Salisbury, Md.
In their second game against Parkside High, Brennan suffered a collision that resulted in her spending more time on the side than expected. Although the collision did not result in any serious injury, Dodd did not want to jeopardize her well-being, as an ankle injury late in last year’s season kept Brennan at a spectator’s distance.
“You can have your starting six positions,” he said, “and you practice when you can, but you’re still playing other positions for [anticipation of an injury]. If it does happen, you need to be prepared, but you never know what’s going to happen.”
The time spent on the court on Saturday, against teams from throughout the Maryland and Delaware regions, was an assurance to Dodd and his team that everything trickles back to the fundamental aspects of the sport.
“You still have to go back to the basics every day,” said Dodd. “I don’t care who you are – if you’re on the men’s national team – you still have to play simple, basic volleyball drills. If you get out there in a scrimmage and work on the hardest trick play in the book, if you can’t pass, it’s not going to make you a bit better. You need to work on the simple things before you get to the advanced skills.”
The play-days offered a chance for the team to get the feel of one another, and allow upcoming freshmen to really see what it’s like, added Dodd.
With the completion of one of two play-days as of Aug. 29, the Lady Indians are two weeks away from their season opener against Delmarva Christian Academy, which gives them plenty of time to work out the kinks.
“We had some real good plays and finished really strong,” Dodd said of the Lady Indians first play-day at Bennett High School. “But we definitely need to improve.”