Casper College volleyball coach Angel Sharman has seen a lot during her 20-plus years of coaching. This year’s Thunderbirds team, however, has presented Sharman with a new challenge.
“We have all new middle (blockers),” Sharman said during practice Thursday. “We don’t have anybody back who played that position for us last year.”
With just five returning sophomores, the T-Birds are lacking experience across the board, but no place is that more apparent than in the middle of the court. And for someone who has built a reputation as one of the top defensive coaches in the junior college ranks, throwing freshmen into the mix at a key position is difficult.
“It’s a struggle for us right now because they don’t see the pace of the game yet,” Sharman said. “They’re still in high school mode so they have to pick the intensity up.”
The youthful T-Birds will have less than two weeks of practice under their belts before facing Division II Chadron State College in an exhibition match Saturday at Swede Erickson Thunderbird Gym. The match should benefit both teams as Chadron State has a first-year coach in Jennifer Stadler, who coached against Sharman for eight years when she was at Sheridan College.
“The Chadron coach also wants to see what she’s got so it worked out great for us,” Sharman said. “But they’re still going to have seniors out there and we might have only one sophomore on the court at times.
“I think we’ll be able to hit with them, but the pace of the game is going to be huge because these girls just don’t understand how fast we have to transition.”
While the T-Birds don’t have experience in the middle, they do have size – Jana Gilic and Hannah Thompson are both 6-foot-2, Shealyn Oili is 6-0 and Elly Yore is 5-11.
And the team’s sophomore experience is spread around the court with Mackenzie Leong at setter, Trinity Bennett at outside hitter, Elisa Haug on the right side and Kylie Watson (Natrona County) and Jovana Jeremic at libero.
The incoming freshmen group includes four in-state athletes in Mountain View’s Ailee Bugas, Star Valley’s Olivia Muir, Southeast’s Hailey Anderson and Laramie’s Ashlyn Titensor.
As one of the team’s unspoken leaders, Watson, who led the T-Birds with 3.99 digs per set last year, has been impressed with what she’s seen from her freshmen teammates in a short period of time.
“Everybody on this team works hard to get better every single day,” she said. “And I want to do what I can to help raise their level of play and help them come together.
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“I’m trying to guide them and show them what to expect at practice, raise our level of communication. I want to show them a standard of what volleyball should be like in this gym every day.”
Fans at Swede Erickson T-Bird Gym should see some quality volleyball next week as Casper College hosts some of the top junior college teams in the country. Beginning Thursday, the T-Birds will play four matches, culminating with a match against Northeastern Junior College, which qualified for the NJCAA Division I Championships last year.
Those matches, along with ones to follow throughout September, will be good tests for the T-Birds before they begin Region IX play in late September.
“Every tournament we go to we’re going to be playing ranked teams,” Sharman said, “but that’s the only way we’re going to get better. Those are the teams that you’re going to see at nationals so we need them to show us our weaknesses so we know what we have to improve.
“Playing lesser teams might help our record, but it doesn’t help us get better. And we have to play those teams in other regions to get us ready for our region because I think we have a tough region.”
The T-Birds’ schedule includes matches against defending national champ College of Southern Idaho on Sept. 5, against NJCAA tournament qualifier Snow College on Sept. 6 and Sept. 13 and defending Region IX champ and NJCAA tournament qualifier Laramie County Community College on Sept. 28 and Oct. 24.
“The pace of the game is going to be challenging at first,” Sharman said, “but I think this group adjusts well so I don’t think it’s going to take them very long. We ask them to change things and they’re very energetic about it.
“But I think this group is getting along the best of any group I’ve ever had. They are working hard and they respond to what we’re trying to adjust.”
How quickly the T-Birds make those adjustments will be key, especially for a program that is coming off back-to-back losing seasons. Casper College finished 13-20 overall and 5-12 in Region IX play last year.
Watson, for one, is confident the T-Birds will be in position to challenge for the top spot in the region.
“We all come from different towns and countries and systems so everybody has played a different game but we’re all adjusting,” she said. “And the first couple of weeks we’re playing some high-ranked teams so that should get us ready for our region.
“Right now I’m just so excited. I cannot wait to start playing. It’s been a long summer.”