The 2021 fall volleyball season was a special one for the 21-9, Tri-County Conference Tournament champion Woodland Warriors.
While a lot of the special players who made it so – including primary setter Jena Easton and Fall 2021 Times Girls Volleyball Player of the Year, Ella Sibert – have left to graduation, the cupboard is not bare as the Warriors prepare to open the 2022 season Monday with a visit from crosstown rival Streator.
“We do have some big shoes to fill this year,” said Woodland coach Michelle Pitte, who enters her third season with a 33-14 record. “We have pulled together as a team to work on some new strategies in order to fill some of those gaps [due to graduation] from last year.
“I believe we will work together and will be successful as one unit, one team.”
A pair of seniors – the team’s only 12th-graders on the opening-day roster – who were pivotal contributors a year ago are expected to lead the way.
Outside hitter Clara Downey was an honorable mentionee on last season’s The Times All-Area Volleyball Team and second-team All-Tri-County Conference. She will serve as a co-captain this fall alongside another senior with proven skills and experience, middle Kaleigh Benner.
“Clara has an incredible ability to read the other team, control her serve and hit, and she keeps her teammates in the game,” Pitte said of Downey. She pulls us all together and truly loves the sport.
“Kaleigh is a hard worker and is always motivated to do better after every play. She will always have the trust of her teammates, and [she] loves the sport as well.”
Defensive specialist Kaiden Connor and setter/defensive specialist Shae Simons return for their junior seasons on varsity after standout sophomore campaigns, with additional juniors including middle/right-side hitter Peyton Bradbury, middle hitters Ashlyn Maubach and Elizabeth Schultz, and outsides Emma Highland and Cloee Johnston. Rylee Olson and Libby Schultz round out the junior class.
Setter/defensive specialist Ella Derossett, a sophomore, also is back after seeing time with last year’s varsity, with additional underclassmen such as freshman defensive specialist Jaylei Leininger and sophomore hitter Malayna Pitte stepping up to the varsity roster.
The Warriors closed out last season with a high-energy run to the Tri-County Conference Tournament championship after posting a 5-3 record during the TCC regular season, then advanced to a Class 1A regional championship match. Coach Pitte believes some of that momentum and excitement that carried last fall’s Warriors to those late-season successes have helped fuel this fall’s Woodland team to put together a worthy follow-up.
“The girls are aware of my expectations, the team expectations, and our own personal expectations,” she said. “We can never focus on one play, one point, etc. The game is too fast to focus on one thing. We will always bring high energy, unity and that ‘one team’ approach to every single game.
“I believe if we are constantly learning from each game, focusing on what we can improve on from the pervious game, how we can be successful for the next game, what we can do as a team to improve who we are, I believe that will be our key to a successful season.
“Always learning, improving and working as one unit is our approach to every single day.”