Lady Pan­thers look for re­turn ti­tle match trip

The Saline Courier Weekend - - SPORTS - By Tony Lenahan tle­na­han@ben­ton­

BEN­TON – On the heels of a run­ner-up fin­ish in the 5A State Tour­na­ment, fall­ing in straight sets to the Jones­boro Lady Hur­ri­cane in the ti­tle match last year, the Ben­ton Lady Pan­thers vol­ley­ball team lost a lot. Seven se­niors, all of whom played a big role for last sea­son’s run­ner-up squad, grad­u­ated, but good thing Ben­ton was deep last year.

The Lady Pan­thers, which fin­ished 25-4 last year, look to be deep again this year, too, though much younger. The good news is Ben­ton returns its top three play­ers in kills in se­nior Han­nah Brewer (286 kills), sopho­more Abigail Lage­mann (236) and ju­nior Laci Bo­han­nan (188). More good news is the in­com­ing sopho­mores from last sea­son’s 21-4 fresh­man team (who were also Cen­tral Arkansas Ju­nior High Con­fer­ence reg­u­lar-sea­son champs, and run­ner-up in the CAJHC tour­ney) bring height.

“We’re go­ing to be taller,” Ben­ton Coach Michelle Shop­pach said. “Our 10thgrade group is taller than the kids that grad­u­ated, so that’s a nice thing.”

That height means Ben­ton will be even big­ger at the net de­fen­sively even after Brewer led the way with 82 blocks last year, Bo­han­nan was third (49) and Lage­mann fourth (41).

The bad news is the Lady Pan­thers will have to find a new set­ter after three-year starter Ly­dia Buchanan (756 as­sists)

grad­u­ated. But, Shop­pach said there is plenty of com­pe­ti­tion at the set­ter’s po­si­tion this year.

“We’re hav­ing to re­place Ly­dia, who’s been a set­ter for three years on the var­sity level,” Shop­pach said. “I’m very pleased with that. I’m work­ing with six or seven kids set­ting each day and (this past Wednesday) when we played, one of the points of em­pha­sis, I think one of the ju­niors said, ‘Way to go, set­ters. You did a good job.’ So the kids are start­ing to see how their work is pay­ing off, es­pe­cially since we’ve got­ten to go a lit­tle 6-on-6 this week.”

Though Shop­pach didn’t name names, there are some play­ers ris­ing above that tough com­pe­ti­tion.

“Two kids stepped up and we hope they step up and they start sep­a­rat­ing them­selves from the oth­ers,” she said. “Of the 22 peo­ple, I feel like we could put them all on the floor, mix them around and be very happy with the way we play.”

An­other huge hole the Lady Pan­thers will have to fill is at the de­fen­sive spe­cial­ist, or libero, po­si­tion. Grad­u­ated Mary Grace Guerra was ex­cel­lent last sea­son lead­ing the team in digs (368), ser­vice re­cep­tions (363) and ser­vice aces (65), not to men­tion sec­ond to Buchanan with 65 as­sists. But just like the com­pe­ti­tion at set­ter, de­fen­sive spe­cial­ist looks to see the same.

“We’ve got a ton of de­fen­sive spe­cial­ist, so I as a re­sult they’re push­ing each other,” Shop­pach said. “There’s no­body that can lay back. They know if they don’t step up and run balls down and make a play, there is some­body right be­hind them that can do that.”

The chem­istry has been good, too, de­spite the fact there are nine new sopho­mores, with Lage­mann a fresh­man var­sity starter last year.

“I’m pleased with how they in­ter­act with each other on the court,” Shop­pach said. “I’m very pleased with how they’ve in­ter­acted with oth­ers off the court. Their skill level is good. The only weak­ness right now would prob­a­bly be the 10th-graders just be­cause the 11th- and 12thgrader­s play at a lit­tle bit bet­ter speed. We didn’t get to (meet) in April and May so they’re hav­ing to learn the speed of the game a lit­tle bit. I feel they’re good enough and they want to do well enough, they stay after even, and work on things that I think the speed of the game will come be­cause they’re tak­ing ex­tra reps.”

Of course the rea­son the Lady Pan­thers didn’t get to meet in those months is be­cause of the cur­rent coro­n­avirus pan­demic, which has im­pacted ev­ery­one, not just ath­letes, across the world in some way. COVID-19 nixed all of spring sports in midmarch and didn’t al­low the vol­ley­ball team to meet un­til June 1. With usual camps through­out the sum­mer, there have been none this year due to the virus which has killed over 500 Arkansans and over 160,000 Amer­i­cans.

“It’s kind of like Ground­hog Day,” Shop­pach said. “You wake up and do the same thing the next day. I feel like it’s been that way since March.

“We’ve got 22 young ladies and I’m very pleased with what we’ve done, es­pe­cially proud of this week,” Shop­pach said.

“The at­ti­tude in the gym has been very good, very re­spon­sive with the lim­i­ta­tions that we’ve had. The drills that we’ve had to do, they’re do­ing them to the best of their abil­ity. We’ve been able to slow down and fo­cus on more in­di­vid­ual skills and I think that’s go­ing to help us on down the line. It’s been nice for us to get to do that, in­stead of just jump­ing into prac­tice, go­ing to a team camp, com­ing back, do­ing an­other team camp. It’s kind of been nice to slow down and work on more in­di­vid­ual skills with the kids.”

Though it will be a dif­fer­ent team from a sea­son ago, Shop­pach is look­ing for an­other ti­tle chance.

“I would like to think that ev­ery year we would be play­ing in a cham­pi­onship match,” she said. “I like to play in Novem­ber.”

Ben­ton be­gins its pre­sea­son with the Ma­roon & Gray game on Tues­day, Aug. 18, at Ben­ton Arena be­fore host­ing a ben­e­fit game there on Thursday, Aug. 20. The Lady

Pan­thers of­fi­cially start the sea­son on Tues­day, Aug. 25, at Green­brier.

Courier file photo

Ben­ton se­nior Han­nah Brewer goes up to spike the ball in a match last sea­son. Brewer returns to the Lady Pan­thers after lead­ing Ben­ton in kills and blocks last year.

Courier file photo

Ben­ton ju­nior Laci Bo­han­nan, 8, and sopho­more Abigail Lage­mann, 10, go up for a block against the Bryant Lady Hor­nets in a match last year. Both Bo­han­nan and lage­mann will be a big part of Ben­ton’s vol­ley­ball team this sea­son.

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