When the New Castle administration suspended varsity volleyball head coach Randy Gardner four matches into the season and dismissed him two matches later for reportedly violating a zero-tolerance inappropriate language policy, the team responded by playing as if in a daze.
Yes, the extremely talented Trojans reeled off one victory after another, but their body language and the energy exerted in those matches indicated they wanted to be anywhere but on the court.
Interim head coach Mike Dodrill sensed trouble and spoke to his team Saturday before the Brebeuf Showcase about playing with the passion missing from the previous matches. Perhaps his words or those of some of the outspoken players sank in as the Trojans responded with their best effort since the coaching change in sweeps of Brebeuf and Silver Creek.
“At the beginning, we were weak, like you could tell,” senior middle blocker Laryssa Welch said, “but I think that now we’re becoming comfortable with (Dodrill) and we’re starting to come together again.”
Their cohesiveness will truly be put to the test Saturday when the Class 4A No. 3 Trojans (10-0) host an invite stacked with talented teams.
Perennial national powerhouse Louisville Assumption, three ranked Class 4A teams in No. 2 Avon, No. 7 Floyd Central and No. 8 Penn, two ranked 3A teams in No. 4 Bellmont and No. 5 Central, and 2A No. 3 Southwood travel to New Castle to play in this prestigious bracket-format tournament.
“This is going to be a big step in our year because we’re undefeated as of right now and these are some of the best teams obviously in the country,” New Castle junior setter Kiley Lingenfelter said, “so we have to just come out and play our game and not get caught up in the whole rankings thing.”
Lingenfelter played at Wapahani her previous two seasons before transferring to New Castle this school year, but her relationship with Gardner dates back long before this season. She played for him as a freshman when he assisted her father, former Wapahani head coach Mike Lingenfelter, and then a year ago for the Munciana Volleyball Club 15-1 Ninjas.
Kiley Lingenfelter said she considers Gardner to be family and admits his dismissal still upsets her.
“This is a hard thing to go through, but we just have to pick it up and keep going,” Lingenfelter said, “because people expect a lot out of us no matter what, and we’re a great team, so we know what we have to do, and I think we’re going to follow through with it.”
Dodrill is preaching a similar message to a group of players that he only started coaching about two months ago. He, too, is in his first season with the program. He previously assisted at Burris and Wapahani before Gardner brought him in as an assistant.
Just four matches into his tenure at New Castle, his title changed from assistant to interim head coach.
“It’s been a challenge,” Dodrill said in a reflective tone. “First of all, it’s tough with Randy being such a good friend and close friend. I’m not supporting anything that was decided or not decided or what he did or what he didn’t do. It is what it is. And coming out and helping him, I fell in love with the girls and decided to see through what was going on.”
Dodrill said winning the Class 4A state championship remains the objective for the Trojans. He and his players agree their invite Saturday will indicate whether the team is on the right track to hoist that 4A state trophy on Nov. 9 in Worthen Arena.
“I hope that we just show people that we’re really good,” Welch said. “I think people doubt us. I don’t like being doubted, so I hope we can prove to people we’re just as good as before.”