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NTL VOLLEYBALL: EXPECTATIONS HIGH FOR ATHENS IN 2020 (2020-09-15)

By TIM BIRNEY
Valley Sports Report
ATHENS — In her first two seasons as Athens volleyball head coach, Heather Hanson has directed the Lady Wildcats back into the postseason for the first time in a decade, and won a District 4 playoff match for the first time in 15 years. She believes 2020 could even better.

“These girls are really driven. They have massive goals,” said Hanson. “I think this will be our best year yet. There is just unlimited potential this year.

“The girls see the banners in the gym,” she notes. “The last District 4 championship banner is from 2005, and to me District champs is what I want.

“The girls are always talking about being NTL champs,” continued Hanson. “It’s been 20-plus years since we’ve won an NTL title. I think the girls really have their sights set on the NTL title.

“Of course, we’re taking it one day at a time, but we have goals,” she added.

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Senior Kayleigh Miller and sophomore Jenny Ryan will be setters in the Lady Wildcats’ two-setter offense.

“Kayleigh has been setting for me for three years, and Jenny is phenomenal as well. They work really well together,” said Hanson.

“Jenny’s hitting has really improved, too, so she’ll be seeing some time as a right-side hitter,” added Hanson.

Senior Leah Liechty will be a middle and outside hitter, and senior Kylie Jayne will be a middle hitter.

“Even from last year, Leah’s hits are really coming on strong,” said Hanson. “She’s a powerhouse, and she’s gaining confidence.

“Kylie has been working really hard,” noted Hanson. “I can see her being a dominant force in the middle.”

Juniors Taylor Walker and Ally Martin will both be outside hitters.

“Taylor Walker is our leader,” said Hanson. “She’s vocal and loud … she has stepped up and is the voice for the team.

Senior Taylor Field will start at libero, while senior Gia Perry will serve and play back-row defense, and seniors Gracie Witherow and Kim Wheeler will be defensive specialists.

“Taylor is a defensive powerhouse, her goal is to be ‘Defensive Player of the Year,’”  Hanson said.

Hanson believes her team’s depth will be a strength.

“We have a strong bench. Even if we have an injury, I think we will be fine.

Our JV team is strong, too,” she said. “We have 14 to 18 girls there. I’m not going to cut anyone … I don’t want to cut a freshman when I don’t know their potential.”

Miller and Ryan at setter, and her team’s experience are also strengths.

“I think we have a pair of tremendous setters, and they know their hitters; that’s a tremendous asset,” said Hanson.

“We’re also experienced enough to be running some quicker offenses this year, and that’s exciting,” she noted. “I had to pull the reigns back a bit in the preseason, but it’s something you’ll see during the season.

“We have an all-around strength to this team,” added Hanson. “I don’t see many weaknesses when I look at our roster.”

Hanson’s only concern is one she has every year.

“My only concern is the slumps you can get into in volleyball, the normal ups-and-downs,” she said. “If we dig ourselves a hole, can we get out of it?  Will our team be strong enough mentally to overcome adversity?

“I know these girls well enough to know that they will be just fine,” she added.

AROUND THE NTL: “North Penn is still the team to beat,” said Hanson. “They did graduate a ton, but they haven’t been laying around doing nothing. They’ve been working hard, and they have a tradition to live up to.

“Towanda is going to be tough as usual,” she noted. “We were up 2-0 on them twice last year, and thought we had them — and lost both matches. Those both stuck with us a while.

“Most every other team in the NTL graduated a lot, and we have a lot of seniors returning,” added Hanson. “We’re strong with our experience, and other teams have lost a lot of their experience.”

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IN PHOTO: Athens senior Kayleigh Miller.

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