This season’s Wharton volleyball team may not have the one standout player who can take over and dominate a match like it has had in the past — most recently embodied by 2017 graduate and current Yale University standout Kathryn Attar — but that isn’t stopping the Wildcats from enjoying early success so far this season.
A theme of “we, not me” was implemented by head coach Eric Barber in the preseason and with that principle, Wharton has flourished through the first month of the 2018 season.
The Wildcats have posted a 14-2 record through their first 16 matches, including capturing the title at the Academy of the Holy Names (AHN) Tournament Sept. 21-22.
“We do a lot of out-of-the-gym-type practices where we talk about what we want to be, not just in volleyball, but as human beings, because it is important for us our whole lives to understand how relying on the people around you is the best way to achieve success,” Barber says. “Discussions like that easily integrate back to athletics, especially in a game like volleyball, where it is vital that everyone is a part of it, that everyone is dialed in.”
But a “we” mentality doesn’t mean the Wildcats are without players who can dominate. It would just be more appropriate to say that the breadth of the team’s depth has spurred on the early success.
“We love each other like a family, so we play together,” says junior outside hitter Jamie Koopman. “We do it in a way where we try to make sure everyone else has the best match they can. If I’m off, it’s as simple as, ‘You know, maybe you don’t set me here, set the middle instead.’”
It’s been a perfect formula.
Wharton attacked the AHN tournament impressively. The Wildcats won all five of their best-of-three set matches without dropping a single set — including avenging a regular season loss to Wiregrass Ranch High in Wesley Chapel by beating them twice by 25-21, 25-12, and 25-19, 25-20 scores.
The Wildcats kept it going the week following the tournament, winning their next two matches 3-0 over Durant and Gaither.
That stretched the squad’s winning streak to nine games, including a 16-0 edge in sets won over the last seven matches.
Juniors Jeanette Henderson and Koopman lead the attack with 120 and 117 kills, respectively, but not far behind is the trio of senior Amara Eziakonwa (91 kills), junior Lexi Morse (76) and senior Devyn Kettner (74).
Setting up the attack is senior setter and co-captain Gracie Viloria (who shares that role with Henderson and Kettner). Viloria leads the Wildcats with 192 assists, with junior Jackye Kelley adding 188 of her own.
Defensively for the ‘Cats, senior Alanis Ortega (186 digs) and Henderson (116 digs) have led the way.
“In the past, we’ve had that one really strong player, like Kathryn Attar, and she was really good and just in the right spot most of the time,” Viloria says. “But sometimes, we really were forcing plays in her direction. But this group really seems to know each other … everyone on this team has a team mentality, and as a setter I’m always comfortable with putting the ball where the play is leading, because I feel like it can really go to anybody right now.”
And that is the goal.
“Whenever you can get a team that achieves true balance, meaning whatever rotation you’re in it can go up to three hitters and you are confident in them,” Barber said, “that is an incredible advantage to have.”
After dropping Class 8A, District 8 matches to Plant and Wiregrass Ranch, the Wildcats have settled into second place in the district. Wharton is 5-2 in 8A-8 as it heads into the upcoming district tournament hosted by Freedom the week of Oct. 15.
Plant, which started the season 15-0 and is one of the top-ranked teams in the state, has been a big obstacle for Wharton for a number of years.
Plant has ended the Wildcats’ season four of the last five postseasons, including two Regional semifinal defeats in the last three years.
The two are likely to meet in the District 8A-8 finals and Regional playoffs again.
The Wildcats hope to change that trend this season; however, the “we, not me” philosophy means much more to these players and their volleyball “family.”
“When I came on the team as a freshman, the team was primarily seniors, and a lot of them were committed to a college already,” Viloria said. “But that never kept them from relating to me and bringing me in, showing me what I can bring to the future of this program.”
Koopman, a junior, agreed that the success this current Wildcats team is enjoying owes itself in part to the players from the past.
“This team has always been so welcoming, I was lucky as a freshman that the team needed my position so I had a chance to play (on varsity),” Koopman said. “At first, I was so scared, but the (upperclassmen) were so immediately welcoming, helping you get better … now, as a junior, that has continued and now it’s the turn of the older players to make the new players feel that, feel welcomed like that and I really love that part of this team.”