A year ago, the Chetopa High School’s volleyball team made the state tournament for the first time in school history. Head coach Jill Blackledge guided the team to a Three Rivers League title, a regional title and sub-state championship en route to the greatest season in school history.
This fall, the Chetopa volleyball program is no more. Instead, the school is in a co-op with USD 505 sister school St. Paul.
“It came down to the fact that Chetopa didn’t have enough girls on campus that had a desire to play,” Chetopa-St. Paul USD 505 Superintendent Craig Bagshaw said. “Our school board made the decision that we would do whatever it took to secure the opportunities for all of our kids. We did not want them to lose that.”
Most of the players will hail from St. Paul, but the team will be known as Chetopa-St. Paul. Blackledge will be the co-head coach alongside Mark Haight, who served as St. Paul’s head coach last year and guided them to a winning season. Blackledge will be responsible for in-game decisions.
With practice in full swing and the season days away for Chetopa-St. Paul, Blackledge feels her roster has acclimated to one another through the changes.
“It’s going well,” Blackledge said. “The girls are getting along. They’re getting into a groove of what each player can do. They’re mixing well.”
Expectations are also sky-high for the team. The Kansas Volleyball Association’s preseason rankings pegged Chetopa-St. Paul as the No. 10 team in Class 2A — classifications haven’t been released yet by KSHSAA and won’t be until the end of September, but it’s expected that the co-op will push Chetopa-St. Paul into Class 2A.
“I was shocked,” Blackledge said. “To be No. 10 in 2A was really exciting. I think it says that we’re going to be a team to watch out for this year. The girls we have will be good for the next couple of years. They have the athleticism, talent and drive.”
A critical returner to the combined roster this year is senior Brali Conard, who played for Chetopa last year. Her injury at the state tournament left Chetopa shorthanded as she was one of two primary front row threats alongside then-senior Samantha Blundell.
Conard averaged 3.8 kills per set and maintained a .359 hitting percentage.
“Last year, I had Brali and Sam opposite because I wanted one of them on the front row at all times,” Blackledge said. “But she’s one of the best hitters and best passers we have. She’s got that silent leadership.”
The rest of Chetopa-St. Paul’s primary lineup will be mostly made up of players from St. Paul a year ago.
Katie Carter, a senior, will serve as the team’s setter in a 5-1 base system.
“It’s different for Katie running a 5-1 this year,” Blackledge said. “She’s done really well transitioning into that role. She’s got a good set, gets the ball to the different hitters and mixes it up.”
Elise Doherty, a junior, will serve as a middle hitter.
“I see big things for Elise this year,” Blackledge said. “We tweaked her approach and got her jumping. She’s got a good vertical and a good swing. I told her we expect 10 blocks a game, that’s what she can do.”
Claire Bradshaw, a junior, will be another threat on the front row.
“She’s very strong and when she goes up to swing, she’ll hit down and hit hard,” Blackledge said. “She’s very vocal and makes sure no balls drop.”
Sophia Albertini, a sophomore outside hitter, will reinforce the lineup.
“That whole Albertini clan is athletic,” Blackledge said. “If our setter has go chase a ball, Sophia can go get that set. When she’s on the front row, she’s got a good approach, can jump and can hit it down hard.”
Josie Harris, a sophomore outside hitter, will also complement the offense.
“She’s quick, has amazing hang time around the net and will be big for us,” Blackledge said.
Seniors Reese Haney and Emily Richenburg will also provide consistency for Chetopa-St. Paul.
“It’s gone really well with the whole team coming together,” Blackledge said. “All the girls want a trip to state. Once we play a game and everybody sees how they work together, I’m hoping that everyone sees that this is going to work.”
As with every program in the state, Chetopa-St. Paul is forced to operate under the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We tell the girls to follow the guidelines — wash hands, wear your mask whenever possible,” Blackledge said. “They wear them in practice. These girls just want to play, so they’ll do whatever they can to keep their season going.”
Chetopa-St. Paul opens the season on Thursday against Galena and Northeast at Galena.
“I have high expectations,” Blackledge said. “We just have to take it one match at a time. We definitely want to bring home a league title, win another sub-state tile and get back to state. These girls can do that.”