CLARION — When a team is coming off a championship-winning season, many say that the target has been firmly placed on that squad's back.
For the Punxsy volleyball team, one could say that said target has been branded on the Lady Chucks' backs. And that doesn't bother them one bit.
The Lady Chucks, who completed another sterling season by finishing 16-2, accepts the fact that they're the favorites in Saturday's District IX Class AA Championships at Clarion Area High School. With that in mind, they're in search of their sixth-straight district title.
"I know we are the best team in District IX. I know we can repeat as District IX Champions for the sixth year in a row. I know for this reason the target is on our backs," Punxsy head coach Lisa Good said. "But this team is up for the challenge. We have prepared. We are ready. We just need to go into Saturday with confidence and get the job we've been doing all season done."
Punxsy's opponents Saturday will be Kane and St. Marys, with a round-robin format taking place. The Lady Chucks face Kane at 11 a.m., Kane takes on St. Marys at 1 p.m., and the final match will be Punxsy versus St. Marys at 3 p.m.
Each match is a best-of-five — just like the regular season. The tournament schedule will be rolling, meaning, the second and third matches may start earlier than their 1 and 3 p.m. scheduled times. If the first two matches are quick, Punxsy vs. St. Marys could begin as early as 2 p.m.
Expecting to give Punxsy its best run for its money is Kane (8-8), which nearly knocked off the Lady Chucks each of the last two postseasons. Punxsy beat Kane at home during this regular season Oct. 11 — 3-0.
"Kane traditionally plays us pretty tough come district playoff time," Good said. "I expect nothing less than that once again. It has been a true battle the last couple of years."
St. Marys (10-6) is a bit of an unknown, since the Lady Chucks didn't play them this season. In head-to-head matchups this year, St. Marys beat Kane, 3-1, and the Lady Wolves beat the Lady Dutch, 3-1.
"You never know how you're going to match up against certain teams until you get on the court and start playing," Good said. "That's where we are right now. We just can't wait to get on the court and start playing."
Punxsy will enter Saturday's event with 11 seniors, including 10 who have been playing within the program since they were seventh-graders. The Lady Chucks have been talented enough to win five district titles in a row, but this year, their starting lineup is overflowing with upperclassmen.
"This is by far the most experienced team I have ever had on the floor," Good said.
The success of Punxsy's team has come down to the initial dig and first pass. Good feels that part of her team is solid, led by libero Hannah Neal, fellow seniors Kayla Knox and Tawnee Bowers, and junior Cassie Cook.
"We have a 'dig deeper' mentality. (All four of them) are scrappers," Good said. "They push themselves to the max to go after every ball. A ball doesn't land due to the lack of effort on their part."
The first passes lead to the sets of seniors Corri Snyder and Kristen Fedder, who have succeeded at directing Punxsy's mutli-faceted attack. The duo has been able to find the hottest hitter at the moment and has worked around the opponent's block.
"They continue to get better at this as the season progresses," Good said. "They have to feed the hitter that is getting the job done at that moment."
At least six players have powered the attack once the set has been placed, with seniors Megan Muth and Kali Bowers attacking from the right side, seniors Shawnna Crago and Melissa Blose powering the middle, and seniors Taylor Powell and Tawnee Bowers coming at the opposition from the left side.
"Our hitters definintely make it easier on them (Snyder and Fedder) by stepping up and attacking with authority and finesse," Good said.
The side of strength for both Muth and Kali Bowers is the right side, and they've been able to keep teams off-balance with their hits.
"The right-side block is very important also, because you're going against a strong left-side attack," Good said.
Crago and Blose — Punxsy's tallest players — have been controlling the middle of the net, whether it is with a kill or block.
"They are a great 1-2 punch out of the middle — great hitters and even greater blockers. They are very effective both offensively and defensively," Good said. "Shawnna hits the ball harder than anyone I have seen in a long time."
Hitting and blocking from the left side are Powell and Tawnee Bowers, who each bring a lot of power to the position.
"They have good verticals and good reaches with their swings," Good said. "They are also smart with the direction they are taking the ball. They are very versitile attackers."
Also available off the bench for Punxsy will be senior defender Carolina Feican and underclassmen Sydney Weaver, Shayla Brink and Tori Martin for the front row and Janie Depp-Hutchinson, Brooke Doney and Chelsea Engeholm for the back row.