By Dana Harding (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
While Rogersville volleyball fell just short of capturing back-to-back Class 3 state titles in 2019 — the 33-5 Lady Wildcats finished runner-up to St. Francis Borgia — the program certainly sent longtime head coach Tammy Miller and Gatorade Player of the Year Birdie Hendrickson out with a bang.
Miller and Hendrickson reached the final four three times during an impressive four-year run, amassing a gaudy 134-17-1 record along the way.
With Miller now coaching at Rolla and Hendrickson on her way to play for the Florida Gators this fall, the Lady ‘Cats will enter the 2020 season looking to reload.
First-year head coach Emily Hutcheson takes over the reins with a deep and promising pedigree.
“It’s exciting to be back, and this is something that I have dreamed of doing since I began my coaching career,” Hutcheson said.
Hutcheson played for Miller on Rogersville’s 2000 second-place squad and has learned from some of the area’s top coaches in Miller, Willard’s Jamalee Hancock and Nixa’s Annie Zimmerman during her 12-year coaching career.
“I have been fortunate to play at the state level with Rogersville in 2000 and 2001, and I’ve also participated from a coaching level last season with Nixa,” Hutcheson said. “Miller, Hancock and Zimmerman are forever a part of my journey in this game. I am grateful for every opportunity that they gave to me. Their mentorship and guidance is something that I cherish and appreciate.”
First up on Hutcheson’s plate will be finding replacements for not only Hendrickson (483 kills, 19 aces, 60 blocks, 352 digs) but two other prominent graduates in Claire Taylor (351 digs, 277 kills, 26 aces) and Shayley Dunavant (179 digs, 20 aces), as well.
Taylor will continue her volleyball career this fall at Drury University.
While her program is experiencing a host of significant personnel changes heading into the fall slate, COVID concerns and rapid adaptation to safety guidelines have added yet another layer of uncertainty to Rogersville’s returning corps.
Hutcheson believes the process and need for constant adaptation will help bring her program together in the long run.
“This group is adjusting and adapting daily,” Hutcheson said. “In a sense, it has become almost a norm for them due to COVID, departure of the 2020 class and departure of Coach Miller — It’s a LOT to take in and adjust to. These changes aren’t something that can be fixed overnight; it’s a slow process, and one that requires an immense amount of trust.
A quartet of players return to lead the Rogersville attack this season.
Senior setter Samantha Thompson (920 assists, 32 aces, 211 digs, 67 kills), senior libero McKinzie Thompson (287 digs, 62 aces), senior middle Ashley Warren (116 kills, 64 blocks) and junior outside hitter Bri Linehan (98 kills, 33 digs, 13 blocks) all move into prominent roles for the Lady ‘Cats.
The four returnees will be joined by a bevy of varsity newcomers including senior right side/outside hitter Chelsea Schatzer, senior defensive specialist Bailey Ballard, junior middle Katelyn Crossland, junior outside hitter/right side Lauren Williams and junior defensive specialist Lindsey Shepard.
Sophomores Lauren Tyler, Natalie Scott and Olivia Frieze could also compete for varsity playing time.
While Rogersville will feature many new faces in new roles, Hutcheson believes her team’s versatility will allow it to quickly overcome the learning curve as players adjust to the varsity level of competition.
“Look for versatility and for us to rely on all six front row players to take swings and get kills for us,” Hutcheson said. “Defensively, we are working hard at pursuing the ball. We will also need to be strong in our serve receive passing and aggressive with our serving.”
Rogersville’s attack will flow through its senior leader and setter.
“Samantha is a consistent setter,” Hutcheson said. “She makes smart decisions and connects well with our hitters. Samantha also reads her opponents well and identifies holes that are available for the attack.”
If the Lady Wildcats are able to remain in system, that versatility could play a key role, as well.
“We have a lot of depth and versatility, which will allow us to adapt to specific situations and produce the best match-ups for the results that we want,” Hutcheson said. “These players have BIG goals and want another shot at the state tournament. We will focus play by play, and moment by moment, to progress towards this year’s goals.”
Rogersville opens its season Sep. 1 at home against Branson.