FALL SPORTS PREVIEW | All-conference coach leads new Falcon core into new era

LANGLEY — Mandy Jones’ hopes are riding on her team’s chemistry.

LANGLEY — Mandy Jones’ hopes are riding on her team’s chemistry.

With only two seniors, the Falcon volleyball team is a young bunch. South Whidbey is basically retooling its starting six players after six seniors graduated. Of the current varsity roster, a handful of players saw varsity minutes last season, and only junior setter Meagan Longdon, junior hitter Mackenzie Hezel and senior blocker Hannah Calderwood started.

There is still plenty of fight in the Falcons. The two seniors, Aly Chapman and Calderwood, plan on playing in the postseason.

“I have high expectations,” said Chapman, an outside hitter. “We have a really good team and should go to state.”

“We just love being together.”

For the team that finished third in the Cascade Conference standings behind King’s and Archbishop Murphy, that’s not unrealistic. Now classified as a 1A school, South Whidbey has a different set of obstacles to reach the state tournament. That journey begins on the first game against King’s, last year’s undefeated Cascade Conference champion at 14-0 and third place 1A team, after three years in a row of playing in the title match that resulted in two state titles. (King’s lost a fifth-set tiebreaker to eventual state champion Colville in the semifinals).

“My dad always says, ‘It sucks they have to play South Whidbey the first game of the season,’” Chapman said.

South Whidbey is eyeing a rematch with its former 2A rival Archbishop Murphy. Last year, Archbishop Murphy eliminated South Whidbey on its home court in the 2A District 1 tournament in a five-set heartbreaking loss for the Falcons. The win sent the Wildcats to the state tournament, and stopped short the Falcons’ season. There was one important lesson learned by the seniors from that loss.

“We need to be consistent,” Chapman said.

The players’ bonds factor into the goal to be consistent. Chapman said every player on varsity competed on a club volleyball squad in the offseason, a vital component to building a top-tier team.

“We’ve all been playing since the season ended last year,” Chapman said.

“We still have to compete against the same schools.”

South Whidbey has the conference’s coach of the year in Jones, in her fifth year as head coach. Many of the younger players have developed their volleyball skills from Jones’ summer camps and club teams she started.Ben Watanabe / The Record Mackenzie Hezel rises to block a kill during a recent practice. The Falcon junior is expected to build on a strong sophomore season. Carlee Mills covers the net with Hezel to stop sophomore hitter Abby Hodson.

As a seasoned coach with struggles and a heart-wrenching season behind her, Jones has changed her coaching style again for what seems to her as a like group of girls. And they have noticed the difference.

“It definitely felt like a fresh start,” Chapman said. “She recognizes what kind of team we are and adjusts.”

Added Calderwood: “With every group of girls, she’s adjusted to what fits us best.”

New beginnings will lead to a different season, the players hoped. And at least one without another disappointing loss to Coupeville. Last season, the Whidbey Island rivals split matches, both of which required fifth-set tiebreakers. Combined with the season-opening match against King’s, Calderwood eagerly anticipated the competition.

“It’s a nice challenge,” she said.

South Whidbey had a 9-5 Cascade Conference record last year. The Falcons’ non-conference record was less flattering at 1-2, a victory against Lynden and losses to Burlington-Edison, which won the 2A state title, and Archbishop Murphy. Whatever accomplishments and gains made last season were because of the host of seniors now graduated from the team. For the Falcons to stay in the top half of the conference standings, Jones will need some of the younger players, including varsity veterans like Longdon and Hezel, to improve quickly.

Once the regular season ends in October, the Falcons have to compete against 1A teams from three other conferences. Some will be familiar, like South Whidbey’s District 1 competitors in its own Cascade Conference and neighboring Northwest Conference, as well as the Emerald City, Olympic and Nisqually conferences. The top six teams in the quint-district playoffs qualified for the 1A state tournament last year. The 2012 district allocations were not set by the WIAA at the time this story went to print, but the state tournament is set for Nov. 9-10 at the Yakima Valley Sundome.

The arduous nature of volleyball left Calderwood and Chapman as the last ladies standing from a much larger class four years ago. Jones has high expectations of her players’ abilities and hustle, because those two factors dictate the defensive side of volleyball for her. In the past, Jones called the Falcons’ defenses “scrappy,” meaning they hit the court to dig kills and chased down errant passes. It’s a lot less glamorous than the beach volleyball montage scene in the movie “Top Gun.”

“You can only stick with this as long as you love it,” Calderwood said.

Getting the younger girls to love volleyball and bond with their teammates became a priority for Calderwood and Chapman. The two seniors were inspired during the school’s recent team captains meeting before the Parents-Athletes-Coaches informational gathering. Earlier this week, the upperclassmen invited all the freshmen to the court about an hour earlier than practice was set to begin. When the ninth graders arrived, the veterans served them breakfast. No hazing or initiation was to be found, just a simple meal and a goodwill gesture.

“It’s something that stays with you,” Calderwood said.

Added Chapman: “We all have fun together.”

When the season becomes difficult, South Whidbey can look back on moments like that and dig deep for added motivation to push on.

“We’re all excited,” Calderwood said. “We’re ready for the season to start.”