Wild cards? Eagles hope less pressure, expectations give way to turnaround year

RANTOUL — The audible difference was noticeable almost immediately.

It’s Thursday afternoon, and the Rantoul volleyball team is nearing the end of its practice when Emily Schluter and Logan Andrews line the sidelines during the Eagles’ final drill of the day.

Almost immediately, the practice goes from a silent, unenergetic session into a loud, exuberant one as the two former Eagle standouts — now volunteer assistant coaches after graduating in the spring — bellow out directions to the new varsity crew.

It could easily turn into a positive to have the pair of boisterous graduates help along this group, but at the same time it does point out a clear discrepancy between the 2017 and 2018 teams —a lack of vocal leadership on this year’s club.

“As soon as they’re involved in the drills, it gets much louder,” Rantoul coach Traci Riddle said of Andrews and Schluter. “They came on board, and it definitely does help. Almost all of the girls played with both of them last year. It helps because they’re both very vocal, and they don’t put up with anything, either.”

However, Riddle then makes a point that, while having the vocal leadership from the sidelines is a great commodity to have, neither she, Andrews or Schluter have any eligibility left. The girls on this year’s team still need to step up in both forms of leadership — vocal and by-example — in addition to truly committing and buying into Riddle’s system.

“How you come into practice every day (is huge),” Riddle said. “Do you want to be here? Or is it, ‘I have to go to practice today?’ Instead of, ‘I get to go to practice today.’ And there’s a difference between those two things. If you ‘get to go to practice,’ you’re excited, and you’re going to get better. That’s our goal.”

If the girls buy into improving with each practice and each game, perhaps things could be different than they were last year.

The 2017 season was a whacky one. Returning nearly the entire core of veteran playmakers in the first season of the Illini Prairie Conference, expectations could not have been much higher.

A bevy of wins, competing toe-to-toe with some of the area and conference’s best teams and gunning for a regional championship were all on the list of goals. None of those happened.

Instead of being one of Riddle’s best seasons as a coach, as was expected, it turned into one of her worst during a 5-26 campaign — and a major injury to Andrews to begin the year turned out to be a microcosm of the season’s misfortune. 

“With the injury right off the bat with Logan, right at the beginning we had to shift what we had because she was a huge part of our team last year,” Riddle said. “That shifted things at the beginning, and I just think because of the (high) expectations and them wanting to win so much, when it wasn’t happening, I think they just kind of gave up. And that’s tough to watch. It’s tough to coach. Especially with the amount of talent that was there, just to give up. So that was rough.”

The sixth-year head coach admits the weight of those lofty expectations most likely produced some extra pressure on the girls, and that’s something a couple of the players admit as well.

“I think we came out thinking we were going to do better than what we did,” junior Lexi Sherrick said. “We had really high expectations, and we just didn’t meet them. I think it put pressure on us. Everyone thought we were going to be really good, and then we just (rolled over). I think it put a lot of pressure on us. It’s not like that this year. We feel a little more relaxed, and we can just build up.”

“The expectations aren’t set high like they were last year,” junior Myejoi William said. “Last year, we thought we were going to have a solid team but ended up not having a solid team. This year, we’ve been working on (more fundamentals).”

That’s what makes this year such an intriguing one for Rantoul volleyball. Preseason expectations were sky high last season, but the on-court results weren’t there.

This season, preseason expectations are low. It’s a young group of Eagles without much experience, especially at the setter position, where Gillian Gawenda was expected to be the team’s mainstay before she tore her ACL for the second time in her career. That leaves youngsters Bella Shields (a sophomore) and Joselyn Rodriguez (a freshman) as the two who will handle the most important position on the court.

Playmakers and leaders are not set in stone yet, and that’s one of the reasons so many mysteries abound concerning this team — but perhaps that’s a good thing. Maybe lower expectations will give way to more relaxed players and a more successful season.

“I am looking forward to watching these girls grow and prosper throughout the season,” Riddle said. “I see lots of potential and possibilities. It will take hard work and grit, but I feel they want it. It’s a good group of girls that bond well together and enjoy the game.

“I’m ready to see what these girls can do on the court. I believe, and now they will need to as well. I see 2018 being a surprising and fun season.”

Still, with such a young team, it could turn into a bit of a wild card of a year, but Riddle already knows that defense will be this team’s identity.

During the summer leagues, the Eagles had their heads in the game defensively and were locking the ball up more, with digging, passing and serve-receive as aspects that stood out to the coach.

“(Defense) is going to pull everything together. It’s going to get us to those hitters, and I am looking forward to that,” Riddle said. “It’s fun to watch an awesome defensive team. It’s fun to watch those big hitters, but it’s fun to watch defense dig and block those hitters, so I’m excited about that.”

And now it comes down to consistency.

“We say that we want to go to the ‘ship. We talk about that a lot,” Riddle said. “We had a practice (recently), and at the end of it, they rated it as fair. Fair teams don’t go to the championship. Good teams might go, but great teams do go. If you practice fair, that’s how you’re going to play in games.

“We want to get to where we’re good, then go from good to great. What’s that take? A lot of work and a lot of consistency. It can’t be up and down. Great teams are consistent all the time. They do the same thing all the time. … They really have to buy into that and play consistent. If I get a leader who’s going to do that for me, without a doubt (we can have success).”

Contact Zack Carpenter at zcarpenter@rantoulpress.com and on Twitter @ZackCarpenter11.

Categories (3):Prep Sports, Volleyball, Sports

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