FRANKTON — The 2019 season will begin a little differently for the Frankton volleyball team for several reasons.
The Eagles will open the season as defending sectional champions for the first time in 22 years and will be playing with that bullseye on their backs.
The Eagles are also carrying the confidence that goes with winning, which could go a long way toward repeating.
"These girls came in on fire," coach Beth Sperry said. "But they're gelling pretty well. I know there are high expectations, but they are staying grounded. But there is excitement in the air."
One of the reasons for so much anticipation of the coming season is Sperry's squad also carries a plethora of finishers up front, one of the biggest strengths of this team heading into her second season at the helm.
"The thing I told the girls is that we have some massive hitters up front," she said.
The top six kills totals from last year are back with seniors Kate Sperry (328), Audrey Cleek (200) and Gabby Carmack (101) and juniors Chloee Thomas (186), Chainey Lowe (81) and Jaylen Lovett (62). Thomas, Carmack and Cleek also led the way in blocks with 68, 55 and 51, respectively, giving Coach Sperry plenty of reason for confidence at the net.
While leading the team in kills, Kate Sperry also paced the Eagles defensively in digs and serves received. She is the player Frankton will lean on when they need a point and is one of the best all-around players in the area.
"She's just one of those go-to players," Coach Sperry said. "No matter where she is on the court, whether she's in the back or the front court, she's still an offensive threat. She's become a very good leader. The girls all look up to her."
Also back is one of the team's setters from a year ago, senior Aleyah Rastetter, who led the team with 86 aces.
In running the 6-2 offense, Sperry utilized both Rastetter and Laikyn Lowe, who has graduated. The duo combined for 822 assists last season, but now as the Eagles transition to the 5-1 offense, it will be the 5-foot-2 Rastetter who will be running the show. Sperry believes she is ready for the new challenge.
"We'll do a different defense when she's on the front row," the coach said. "We're going to miss Laikyn, her spirit, her leadership and her athleticism on the court. But Aleyah is totally prepared to take the reigns and play all around the court."
"I'm definitely trying to train more," Rastetter said. "I'm doing two times more running and two times more sets. In coming to the realization that it's just going to be me out there, I'm working twice as hard."
That's the good news.
If there is any bad news for the Eagles, it is that they did lose two valuable defenders and passers to graduation in Rylee Barker and Kate Shadoan. But, again, Sperry feels she has several returning pieces and a few new faces that will be able to fill that void in the back row, including senior Taylor Baldwin (139 digs), sophomore Lauryn Bates and junior Abby Williams — the latter two should see much more varsity time this year than last.
"We're transitioning Lauryn Bates, who came in late last year ... and she was a hitter," Sperry said. "But now, she's kind of taken over that backcourt ... defensive specialist, and she's loving it. Baldwin has great hands and Abby just had an amazing practice."
Sophomore Emma Smith has joined the volleyball team this season and will serve as Rastetter's backup while she learns the setter job.
Rastetter, who has won a sectional title in three sports — basketball, softball and volleyball — said this year's team is entering the season with a lot of confidence.
"I'd definitely say there's more confidence (than last year)," she said. "There's a lot more trust in our teammates, too. We fully trust in each other. We communicate more."
The Eagles open their season Aug. 20 with a home match against Anderson.