PUNXSUTAWNEY — After losing 11 seniors from last year's district-champion squad, Punxsy's much-younger girls' volleyball team isn't changing its expectations heading into the 2011 season.
"Everyone's goal is to win the district championship," head coach Lisa Kephart said after Punxsy's preseason scrimmage Wednesday. "With us working hard toward that goal, the girls are definitely motivated for this season."
Punxsy's starting squad will return just one player, setter Cassie Cook, on a new-look team that hopes to turn some heads with some new plays.
The starting squad won't be the only thing that's new, though, as this season will be Kephart's first as the varsity coach after coaching eighth-grade volleyball last year.
"With me being a new coach, I'm really excited to be coaching at this level," Kephart said. "It's completely new for me, and I hope that some of the different things I'm trying with the girls, things they may have never seen or tried before, and some of the new plays, will surprise the other teams and even some of our fans a little bit this year."
Punxsy will open its season Saturday at the Slippery Rock Tournament, which Kephart called another opportunity to see what her girls are capable of, before beginning regular season play Tuesday at home against Ridgway.
So far, so good for her squad, which has played a pair of preseason scrimmages, now.
"Saturday, the girls played really well and worked really well together," Kephart said. "We worked on our techniques during the scrimmages, and individually, every- one did well. As a team, they showed that they're capable of working well together, too."
Punxsy's two main weaknesses happen to be things that are beyond Kephart and the team's control: Inexperience and lack of height.
There is no controlling the graduating seniors, and there's definitely no way to make the players any taller, but there are things that Kephart is working on to try to offset the team's weaknesses.
"We're a shorter team, and we know that," she said. "So, getting some good kills in and blocking will probably be weaknesses for us, right now. That means we just need to work harder on covering our blocks and keeping our opponent's hitters covered. If we get blocked, we need to bounce back and play the ball quicker. Because we're smaller, we hope that we can beat them with our quickness."
Kephart is confident that her girls have a quick defensive team, so "if everyone works well together, we shouldn't get beat too much at the net."
That's where the other question mark comes in, though.
Can a Punxsy squad with just one returning varsity starter work together and find the leadership it needs to get the job done?
Kephart is confident the answer to that question is yes, though she's well aware it will be a challenge for her girls, including seniors Cook, Tori Martin, Brooke Doney and Janie Depp-Hutchison.
"We'll definitely be leaning on Cassie, our returning starter and the one with the most playing time," she said. "I expect to see a lot of leadership from her, and all the seniors will have to step up. So far, they've definitely been showing they can be leaders on and off the court at practices and at our scrimmages, but after losing 11 seniors, it's a new experience for the team, and we know that we have a lot to prove. It's definitely a motivation factor."
Cook will start at setter for Punxsy, with Depp-Hutchison, Shayla Brink and Taylor Newcome playing the outside hitter positions.
Punxsy's starting middle hitters will be Martin and Sydney Weaver.
Doney is expected to rotate in for Newcome in the back row, and Chelsea Engeholm will play libero, a position that specializes in the back row and can substitute for multiple players during the game.
Engeholm is expected to rotate in for middle hitters Martin and Weaver when they would be in the back row.
Punxsy opens the season against Ridgway and is not looking past that game, but Kephart pointed to Punxsy's games against Bradford and DuBois as true tests that will say a lot about what the Chucks are made of this year.
"They're both teams that I know have good solid programs and good coaching, so I hope we can win those games, or at least put up a good fight to build our confidence," she said.
Punxsy first visits DuBois Sept. 13 and will host Bradford Oct. 4, but is focused on taking it one game at a time.
"I think we definitely have the talent," she said. "It's just going to take everyone working together as a team to show everyone what we really have."