By Kai Raymer (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Playing for – and winning – district championships has become the norm over the last decade for the Clever High School volleyball program.
The Blue Jays are coming off another appearance in the state tournament. Clever finished 23-10-3 overall last year and on the brink of a final four appearance, falling to 27-win Mountain View-Birch Tree/Liberty in the Class 2 quarterfinals.
The 2016 season marked Clever’s eighth district title since 2006. Even in the years they didn’t win a district title during that span (2010, 2013, 2015), the Blue Jays still reached their district tournament’s championship game.
Last year, Clever beat a 25-win Marionville team in the district finals, then 24-win (and sectional host) Sarcoxie before running up against Liberty.
“Depth, experience, talent and competitiveness were they key factors for us last year,” said fourth-year coach Angie Wise. “We needed to (improve) our schedule to get us into state tournament play. The team stepped up, accepted challenges and came up one game short.”
A sizable chunk of that talent and depth has graduated, most notably 2016 SWCL Player of the Year Taylor Menzies. She led Clever in kills (157) and blocks (76).
Also gone are 5’11” OH/MH Emily Mendenhall (131 kills) and a large part of Clever’s defensive unit in defensive specialists Madison Newman (312 digs), Madi Wilson (243 digs) and Gabby Cole (197 digs).
In addition, Clever will also be without one of its starting setters, Jessica Swartz, who had 247 assists as a junior last season in the Blue Jays’ 6-2 system.
“With the loss of five seniors and a starting setter not returning, we have some shoes to fill,” Wise said.
But Clever has some familiar names to lean on, starting with senior captain and four-year starter Lindsay Peebles. She had 327 assists (team-high), 222 digs, 33 aces (team-high) and 67 kills last season.
Peebles, a three-time All-SWCL selection, will likely surpass 1,000 career assists and 1,000 service points this season.
“She has great court awareness,” Wise said.
Harper Little is a two-time all-conference selection and figures to have more attacking opportunities this season with Menzies and Mendenhall gone. Little, a junior, had 149 kills and a team-high 378 digs last season, and will likely surpass 500 career kills this season.
“She plays much bigger than her height (5’6”),” Wise said.
Junior Abi Menzies, the younger sister of Taylor Menzies, also figures to have increased production. Abi had 132 kills (along with a team-high 36% kill percentage) and was second on the team with 60 blocks in 2016.
“Look for this girl to do great things,” Wise said. “She is a powerful hitter anywhere along the net.”
Clever will turn to some new names to fill out its varsity rotation. Sophomore Carly Debriyn is expected to slide in as the second setter and brings positional versatility, Wise said.
Junior Tessa Newman, the younger sister of Madison Newman, will be the libero and defensive leader for the Blue Jays.
“Tessa can pass and swing from the back row,” Wise said.
Seniors Shelby Riley and Brett Beard will contribute as backside hitters and defensive specialists. Ashten Graaf, a 5’10” junior, will try to fill some of the middle hitting and blocking duties lost with the graduation of Taylor Menzies and Mendenhall.
“Ashten has worked hard to assume her new role as a varsity starter,” Wise said.
Wise knows Clever will be outsized at times this season, but said passing and serving should be the team’s strong points.
“Our biggest concern is communicating on the court constantly,” Wise said. “We will continue to work on hitting setting and our offensive systems.”
Clever travels to Marionville on Aug. 22 for its season opener, then hosts Fair Grove two nights later.
“We’ll continue to compete with the best schools,” Wise said. “If this group can overcome the traditional powerhouse schools’ reputations and not let those names affect them, they could do great things once again for the program.”