With several players back from last season’s Division I state championship run, Joe Burke’s Mount Notre Dame girls’ volleyball team is again the team to beat locally in the big-school division.
Burke has to replace six seniors, but the Cougars will be favored to win a fourth straight league title in the Girls Greater Catholic League and to be the top challenger again for a state title in a region full of talented teams.
The girls’ high school volleyball season begins Saturday.
Burke welcomes back senior libero and University of Dayton recruit Margo Wolf, junior outside hitter and LSU recruit Sydney Mukes, senior setter Jessica Towle and junior middle blocker Dani Szczepanski.
“We’re very happy with where we’re starting off,” Burke said. “While we graduated some very key contributors last year, we feel very confident with girls who have stepped up and began to improve throughout their first couple of years in the program. Right now, we’re playing very well for just being about a week into the team.”
Defense and ball control will be the hallmarks of this experienced Cougars team.
“Our blocking, I believe, is better this year than it was last year,” Burke said. “Our defense has a lot of the same contributors as well. So they’ve played with each other for an extra year at the varsity level. I think we should be fairly balanced on offense.”
Right on Mount Notre Dame’s heels will be league rival and 2012 state champion, Ursuline Academy. Standout Sam Fry is off to the University of Notre Dame and Paige Kebe has moved on, but the Lions will again be among the top area teams.
“I think we’ll be really good on defense and probably struggle a little on offense putting the ball away because we lost Sam and Paige,” Ursuline coach Jeni Case said. “But we have a lot of experience back for sure. It’s nice having all those seniors.”
Junior all-state libero Avery Naylor returns along with seniors Lauren Wilkins, Katherine Edmondson, Mallory Bechtold and Abby Williams. Junior setters Alyssa Steller and Kelly Cameron are also back in the lineup. Williams is a Cincinnati recruit while Wilkins has committed to Columbia and Bechtold has committed to Fairfield.
“We just have a lot of solid players,” Case said.
“We’re going to need to be a little more crafty on the offensive end. It’s not like last year where we’d pass it, set it and then Sam would put it away. Our games are going to be a little longer. We’re going to have lots of rallies and we’re going to keep the ball off the floor.”
Other teams to watch in Division I will include Mason, Lakota East and Lakota West from the Greater Miami Conference, and St. Ursula, McAuley and Mercy from the GGCL.
“The GGCL is always going to have very good teams,” Burke said. “Obviously, Ursuline is the first that comes to mind, but there’s St. Ursula and McAuley is poised to have a good year as well. The GMC is also very good between Lakota East, Lakota West, Mason and others who also have very good programs. Then some of the other schools are coming along. Some of the ECC schools have stepped up. It should be a fun year.”
In Division II, McNicholas, Wyoming and Taylor will be among the top regional contenders.
“I graduated five kids and we’re getting a couple back from injury, but I think we’re going to be strong again this year,” McNicholas coach Denny Murphy said. “I have a few inexperienced players who didn’t start last year that will this year and I had two or three kids out hurt during the summer, so getting them back healthy will be the biggest key.”
Junior outside hitters Sara Crooker and Hannah Wuerfel, junior middle blocker Lauren Schmalz and sophomore setter Adrian Ell are the top McNicholas players back.
“We’re passing pretty well offensively and we hit the ball pretty well,” Murphy said. “We’re blocking pretty well, so we’ll be pretty well rounded.”
Julie Plitt’s Wyoming team will be young, but should also be strong again. The Cowboys welcome back Pittsburgh recruit and senior middle blocker Madi Maisel, junior defensive specialist Maddie Bahr, senior defensive specialist Grace Schneider and junior middle blocker Haley Stewart.
“We have a little bit of youth and some talent,” Plitt said. “It’s not going to happen right away. They’ve got to gain some experience pretty quickly and they’ve got to be consistent. We’re struggling with consistency.”
Norwood and Indian Hill will be other Division II teams to watch. In Divisions III-IV, Roger Bacon, Fenwick, CHCA, Mariemont, Badin, Madeira and Cincinnati Christian will be among the top teams.