Haley Miller had grand visions for the Labette volleyball program in her first season as a college head coach last fall. She wanted to guide the Cardinals to its winningest season in school history and inject instant momentum.
Quickly, Miller’s dreams fell victim to the reality of rebuilding a junior college program. Labette finished the year with an 8-22 record and missed out on the postseason, finishing 10th out of 11 teams in the Kansas Jayhawk Conference.
Now Miller has scaled back her approach to the perpetual rebuild of Labette volleyball, opting for a more methodical approach in her second year with her first full recruiting class arriving on campus.
“We’re just going to go game by game,” Miller said. “We want to go 1-0 each match. Last year, we could’ve come out with a better record than 8-22. We had several close matches with conference teams that we haven’t kept up with in a year. This conference can flip on a dime. We just want to be consistent and finish strong.”
Miller’s growth as a head coach in the KJCCC ranks includes self-reflection on her approach in training camp.
“The biggest thing I struggled with was flying too fast through the preseason,” Miller said. “We needed to take it slower and work harder on the fundamentals and building a stronger team chemistry. That was botched when I took the job, so I didn’t really see the need to put duct tape on it.”
This fall, Miller said cohesion among team members is trending upward compared to last year.
“As far as chemistry goes, the girls have connected super quick this year,” Miller said. “It’s spot on. As far as taking it slow in the preseason, I’ve broken down what we’re doing in practices so they’re more planned out and detailed than last year.”
Schematically, the Cardinals will stay with a 6-2 base offensive set in 2019. Labette has more height on the frontline this year but traded speed for size.
“For Xs and Os, we’re staying similar to what we did last year,” Miller said. “We’ve had to change the height of our sets a little bit based on what hitters we have. We’re a bit taller but a bit slower, so we have to give them more time to get there. Hopefully that’s something we can speed up.”
The revolving door of assistant coaches kept rotating this offseason as Kae Yeoman, an Oswego native who won a national championship as a player at Coffeyville in 2017, joined Miller’s staff.
“She’s my right hand,” Miller said. “I can be thinking something and Kae has already addressed it. I don’t have to direct her to go fix something. Our chemistry is there. We click really well. In the past, there wasn’t that connection with the assistants.”
Yeoman is anxious to leave her fingerprints on the team.
“I think it can be a really good turnaround season for this program,” Yeoman said. “It’ll be a matter of the girls believing in themselves, staying composed, being coachable and finding a fire to want to win.”
Labette’s roster will be filled with youth this fall as just six sophomores — only three of whom played in 24 or more matches last season — appear on the roster.
Middle blocker Katelynn Wissman (Shawnee, Oklahoma) will anchor the frontline. Her freshman season was hindered by an injury, but she still averaged 1.00 kills and 0.70 digs per set.
“I thought last year she’d play a lot for us, but that injury opening weekend really wore on her,” Miller said. “I think she’s done a 180 since last year. She’s working twice as hard and she’s consciously trying to make the changes we’re talking about.”
Zhanisha Tounsel (Tucson, Arizona) is the most explosive returner for the Cardinals. The 5-foot-9 outside hitter averaged 1.13 kills per set as a freshman.
“I want to see her be more vocal and more of a leader,” Miller said. “She’s the type of player that shows up on game days.”
Josey Weimer (Melvern), another outside hitter, provides consistency across the rotation for Labette. She averaged 0.65 kills per set last year.
“She’s going to find her way on the court,” Miller said. “I don’t know when that’s going to be. We’re working on getting her in shape. She’ll benefit us because she played against other conference teams.”
Lainee Gulledge (Maumelle, Arkansas), a 5-foot-10 middle blocker with good athleticism and ball control, is among freshmen standouts in training camp.
“She’s got solid volleyball IQ,” Miller said. “She’s just a little hesitant right now. We’ve got to get her into that sophomore mentality that she’ll shut down a block every time. She’s got a fiery personality. She’ll be the first one to step up and tell her team to make a change.”
Labette also will have local flavor peppering its roster this fall.
Hannah Spriggs (Parsons), a setter, joins the Cardinals with the benefit of experience of setting a college-caliber hitter in Nena Taylor, who signed an NCAA Division I scholarship with Oral Roberts women’s basketball. Spriggs led Parsons in assists each of the last two seasons.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” Miller said. “Hannah was used to just putting the ball up there and Nena would go get it. Here, I expect her to put the ball at a certain height for a certain hitter in a certain play. That’s an adjustment for her, but one that she’s handled with ease. She’ll be just fine for us.”
Laci Strickland (Labette County) also joins Labette to bolster its frontline. At 5-foot-10, Strickland gives the Cardinals some much-needed height at the net. But she’s coming off an ankle surgery in the offseason, which will affect her progression early.
“Coming off an injury, we’ve been working on fixing her footwork,” Miller said. “She’s got a powerful arm swing, so we need to get the lower half of her body to do what we need it to do. Her ankle isn’t going to have time to get back to 100%, so we want to keep her healthy and ready to go.”
Rileigh Vail (Oswego) is another local prospect that adds versatility to the back row for Labette.
“She could go either way, which is why I love the kid,” Miller said. “She can step up and be a setter or a libero and handle those roles. I don’t know who’s going be on my court and how she’ll fit in. But she has the upper hand because she has the ability to play more than one position.”
Others on Labette’s roster include sophomores Luiza Zoldan Malafatti (Sao Paulo, Brazil), Asia Howard (Fort Worth, Texas) and Hannah Casteel (Coweta, Oklahoma), as well as freshmen Alex Kapales (Jonesboro, Arkansas), Madeline Smith (Lebo), Tessa Newman (Clever, Missouri) and Caitlyn Reese (Dewey, Oklahoma).
“This year, it’s a stepping stone for what I want Labette to be known as,” Miller said. “I don’t think we’ll miss anything from the kids that are gone. The team chemistry is already there and that helps tremendously. Losing so many sophomores won’t be as detrimental as some people might think.”
Labette opens its season on Aug. 23 at the Fort Scott Tournament. There, the Cardinals will face Ottawa JV, Allen, Neosho County and Fort Scott over two days.
As for expectations, Miller is optimistic that her vision for one of the most difficult turnarounds in the conference can come to fruition.
“I’d like to see us double our wins,” Miller said. “In our book, the turnaround comes from continuing to bring in kids to the program that mesh with our personality and want to be here. As we build this program, we can go after high impact kids to feed into our team that can bring a different dynamic.”