FROM KYLE PARMLEY and 280 LIVING
The most important moment for the future success of the 2017 Oak Mountain High School volleyball team came last fall.
The Eagles needed one more win to qualify for the Class 7A state tournament, but one of the top teams in the state stood in their way. They watched as Bob Jones lined up across the net from them, and they didn’t flinch.
They not only went toe to toe with Bob Jones for five sets. They came out on top, rallying back to win the fourth and fifth sets to secure their trip to state (25-18, 25-27, 23-25, 27-25, 15-11).
Defensive specialist Brie Palmer’s reaction to her team pulling off that win?
Oak Mountain needed that win to gain a taste of experience at the state tournament, and to perhaps believe that it could knock off anyone at any time on any stage. While the state trip did not prove fruitful on the win-loss side of things — the Eagles fell to McGill-Toolen in the quarterfinals — it gave the upcoming class of seniors an experience that the team will be able to benefit from this season.
“It was an experience for us because we had never done it,” said Keller Lovvorn, one of Oak Mountain’s eight seniors this year.
The Eagles have made no secret that the goal for this season is a state championship. Of course, that is the goal for every team at the outset of any given season, but Oak Mountain has the returning experience and talent to believe that a title is an achievable goal.
Coach Tien Le said before the season that he believed making it to the state tournament last year was paramount for a team that had legitimate aspirations of winning it all this year. That way, if the Eagles are fortunate enough to get back to state, there will be one less significant learning curve to navigate.
“That pressure is completely different,” Palmer said. “There’s so many teams, you see all these sections filled with people and it’s just like, ‘Alright, now don’t miss your serve.’ It’s pressure. But this year, so far we’ve done a good job of preparing for that.”
Cameron Rueschenberg did not have a direct impact on the court last year, as she recovered from a knee injury. But she was with the team every step of the way, and was pleased with how much of the team’s work paid off in the end.
“I was super, super proud of them,” she said. “It made me mad that I couldn’t be out there with them…I thought everybody grew as a player. It was awesome.”
Having eight seniors on the varsity team this fall puts the Eagles in a bit of a unique situation, but one that should prove fruitful. Each of the seniors contributes in her own way and brings something different to the table.
Palmer and Lovvorn are two of those seniors, and have been battling for the same position on the floor since middle school. They are both defensive specialists and have each spent time as the team’s libero.
“It’s always been a competition, but I’ve never thought about it in a negative way,” Lovvorn said. “Brie’s always made me better and I feel like I’ve always made Brie better.”
Palmer agrees with that assessment. Seeing Lovvorn work and improve has had a positive impact on her game.
“Every day in practice, she’ll do something good, and I’m like, ‘Hey, I want to do that,’” Palmer said.
If Rueschenberg had been healthy last year, she would have been one of the team’s top players, making the Eagles’ push to state even more impressive. This fall, she claims to be 100 percent and has shed the knee brace for good, so the defensive specialist and left side is ready for a big senior campaign.
“I feel like I never stopped playing,” she said.
The most imposing figure on the outside for the Eagles is Torie Denkers, a powerhouse hitter who can put the ball down with the best of them. Rueschenberg described her in one word.
Denkers plays with her emotions on her sleeves as well, and Palmer noted how that energizes the entire team in the moment.
“When she gets hyped up, everybody gets hyped up,” Palmer said.
Ashley Treace is a solid all-around player, with the ability to set and hit from the outside. According to teammates, she is a model of consistency.
Kendall Scharbert is a force in the middle at 6-foot-3, and is an intense competitor. Kaitlyn Lund is a middle and is the opposite of Scharbert. Lund is a calm player and doesn’t ride an emotional rollercoaster.
“Which is not a bad thing at all,” said Palmer. “You need a little bit of both. (Kaitlyn) is very steady.”
Kathryn Beard’s teammates see her as trustworthy, a genuine compliment off the court and important in its own way on the court.
“She knows what she’s doing and she knows what to run and what to do when it’s needed. She listens really well,” Lovvorn said.
Each of those girls combines to compose the majority of one of the state’s top high school volleyball teams, along with Maddie Moss, Katelyn Frey, Leah Nielsen, Lauren Price and Kaylin Warren.
How far the Eagles advance this fall will depend on lessons learned and how well the current roster — unique traits, commonalities and all — jells together.
“We’re going to take it game by game,” Lovvorn said.