NEWARK – Licking Valley was underneath the microscope.
On one side of the gymnasium, Newark Catholic was watching. On the other sat Granville. Panther senior Mackenzie Hoyt admitted it gave her a bit of an uneasy feeling. The Licking County League contenders were on display Friday during the Newark Catholic Preview.
“It is nerve-racking because you don’t know how good you are going to do because you have all of these great teams watching you,” Hoyt said. “It is like: ‘Oh my gosh, I need to perform well here. That’s a must.’ “
Valley is the defending LCL champions and have the target square on its back. To repeat, the Panthers will have to replace some massive firepower.
Hoyt will do her best with help from classmate Sierra McConnell, who missed her junior season because of an injury. In the middle, Valley will have to rely on some inexperienced juniors to replace a senior class that included Cassi Stein, Brittney Wilson and Carrie McArtor.
“It is really weird. I felt we did well last year being leaders with last year’s seniors, but they were a good bunch of seniors,” Hoyt said. “We miss them, but I would say we are doing fairly well. We have come a long way from the beginning to where we are now.”
The Panthers’ competitors are not without question marks, too. The Green Wave return a good chunk of the roster from its Division IV state tournament appearance in 2013, but NC has just one player with size: Jill Blacksten.
The Green Wave will have to make up for their lack of size with athleticism from Jenna Bourne and Taylor Daignault and Christine Joyce. It still is a work in progress, as evidence by inconsistent play in two lost sets to Bishop Ready during the event.
“Today was kind of more of a wake-up call that we really do need to get to that point again,” Daignault said. “We just need to play more as a team, but I know we can do it because we have done it before. We have a strong bond because all of us are really tight.”
Heath must replace go-to player Alexis Boyd, but the Bulldogs return seniors Mikhayla Wolfe and Alexis McJunkins in the middle from their Division II district runner-up. The Blue Aces — who split two sets with Newark — have some size in the middle with Emilee Skerbetz and Allison DePage, who will need to replace Becca Flathers. However, defense could be a concern after the graduation of Sarah and Grace Imhoff.
Lakewood and Utica should throw their hats into the ring, too. The Lancers and new coach Rex Carr are bolstered by the all-around talents of Elaina Davenport and libero Emily Wogan. Rachel Londot is nearing the end of an impressive four-year run with the Redskins, and she has help from her sister Alyson and Shelby Francis.
“I feel like we have always been a target, but it is a really tough league,” Hoyt said. “Everyone is a target, really. We all want to beat each other.”
Valley’s two victories against NC proved to be the difference in 2013 as the Panthers won the title by a game over the Green Wave and Granville.
That league title was the missing piece in NC’s season. The Gree Wave would like to make it the prelude to another run to Dayton.
“Getting to the final four was great, but this year our goal is to take both of the LCL and state tournament,” Daignault said. “The LCL is like the first step into it.”
She did not mind the pressure of being watched either.
“If anything, it should pump us all up,” Daignault said. “They know that we are a team to reckon with. Let them look.”