Labette’s volleyball program has faced the longest layoff of any sport in the school due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The last time the Cardinals took the floor was Oct. 30, 2019.
Since then, the pandemic put a halt to the team’s scrimmage spring season and postponed the 2020 fall season to the second semester in 2021.
That gave head coach Haley Miller a chance to hit the reset button on a program that has historically finished near the bottom of the KJCCC.
“I’m used to volleyball being a sprint, and I was forced into volleyball as a marathon,” Miller said. “I wanted to take advantage of the time we had and re-focus on things I hadn’t done a good enough job enforcing throughout the season.”
Miller took it all the way back with her program during the 15-month offseason.
“I focused on taking a step back to fundamentals and being solid,” Miller said. “Passing correctly, footwork, body position, head position and hand position. We took it back to the roots of volleyball that you learn when you’re a little kid. Then we brought it back up to speed.”
Heading into the 2021 season, one campaign removed from a two-win year, the Cardinals have an overhauled roster with only two sophomores.
“We’ve got new opportunities for the kids that want to work hard and take advantage,” Miller said. “We want the girls that will prove people wrong.”
Tessa Newman, a sophomore defensive specialist and libero, is the bona fide leader in the locker room. In 2019, Newman averaged 4.68 digs per set.
“I expect big things out of Tessa,” Miller said. “She’s stepped up in the offseason and worked hard on the court every day. She’s got 12 freshmen under her and she’s keeping them straight. On the court, she’s faster and getting better reads and more touches on the ball. I’m hoping she can earn some conference honors.”
Caitlyn Reese, a sophomore right side and middle, is the Cardinals’ other returner.
“She’s grown a lot as a player,” Miller said. “Everything has started to make sense for her in the system. She’s making smarter plays and can put up a big block on the outside.”
Freshman Kaela Wilkerson, a freshman and native of Sanger, Texas, is expected to be a playmaker on the outside for Labette.
“She’s very springy and has a great vertical,” Miller said. “She can get the ball too. We’ve always had undersized right sides or outside. Kaela has the ability to jump and hit over the block. That’s not something we’ve had at Labette.”
Another player expected to make an impact in her first year shares her new head coach’s namesake. Haley J. Miller, a freshman outside from Seneca, Missouri, will be a pivotal piece.
“I’m expecting her to be another outside for us,” Miller said. “Haley has a cannon. It’s unreal when she gets a hold of the ball. Not a lot of people can get a touch on it.”
The Cardinals also feature some local flavor. Callie Younger, a freshman, hails from Independence.
“She’s a great kid that gets in her own way a bit,” Miller said. “But once everything clicks, she fires on all cylinders. She’s still learning the sport of volleyball. She can fluidly play any spot on the front row and puts up a very solid block.”
Katie Bitner, a freshman setter, graduated from Southeast in Cherokee.
“She’s going to be a great front row setter,” Miller said. “She needs to work on defense a bit. But she can fill that setter role.”
Others on Labette’s roster include Keyana Brown (Desoto, Texas), Jasmine Putman (Webb City), Maci Bohannon (Crowley, Texas), Ryen Willhite (Lamar, Missouri), Emma Lincoln (Adrian, Missouri), Jordan Johnson (Little Elm, Texas) and Avery Muse (Mayflower, Arkansas).
Chaos and uncertainty plagued the Labette volleyball program long before the pandemic. Miller is the program’s third head coach since 2015 and she’s on her fourth assistant coach.
But that new assistant, Deardin Kelley, has helped provide sought-after stability. Kelley played at Fort Scott when Miller served as an assistant coach there.
“She’s been really great for our program,” Miller said. “She brings new ideas, new thoughts and somebody to bounce off ideas. She gives me the feedback I’ve been looking for. She’s very anxious to get going. She’s done study hall, covering practices and hasn’t gotten to experience that gameday adrenaline you get.”
Opportunity exists for a reshuffling in the KJCCC. While Labette is picked to finish 10th out of 11 teams in the KJCCC — Johnson County is first — multiple schools have new head coaches including traditional powers Coffeyville, Fort Scott and Neosho County.
“This year, we could be a middle-of-the-pack conference team,” Miller said. “I’m good with that small climb. The top five teams are always stacked. So it’s small steps for us. But I see us being able to be in the middle of the conference.”
The pandemic forced Miller to examine her reflection for over a year. That reflection has Miller reinvigorated and aching to revitalize the Labette program.
“It showed me that I needed to spend more time taking a step back and looking from an outside perspective,” Miller said. “It taught me how to slow down, reflect and teach the kids how to understand what I’m expecting of them on and off the court. Now I can enjoy the ride while I have it and humble myself. Now I’m excited to be back on the court.”