Jenna Howard’s eyes light up and she leans forward when asked what it’s like to set up a hitter for a thunderous kill on the volleyball court.
Her enthusiasm is ready to burst as if she’s been waiting to discuss this part of her game all day.
“Best feeling ever. Especially when it lands in the middle of the court and no one can get it. It’s so amazing,” said Howard, a junior setter for the powerhouse North Creek High squad, which was ranked in the 4A state top 10, according Max Preps, at press time. The Jaguars finished 4A KingCo play in second place with an 8-1 record and stood at 16-1 overall after defeating Redmond, 3-0, and Eastlake, 3-2, in the early rounds of the league championship tournament. North Creek will face Issaquah in the championship contest at 7 p.m. Oct. 30 at Bothell High. Both teams will advance to the Wes-King District tourney.
When Howard receives a solid pass, she knows it will help her unleash a first-rate set. Senior Gabby Kepley (5-foot-11) and junior Allison Wilks (a 6-footer) provide a ton of the hitting firepower from their outside spots for the Jaguars.
On Kepley, who has committed to play for Western Washington University next season, Howard said: “She’s insane, probably the best right side I’ve ever seen. So good.”
When Wilks — who moved from middle blocker to outside hitter this season — discussed the squad, Howard strolled into the interview zone and her teammate laughed and jumped right into compliment mode.
“Well, my setter here has been doing a pretty good job of getting me some good opportunities, so I think that I’ve been able to put the ball away effectively,” said Wilks, noting that Howard can mix up her sets to catch opponents off guard.
Head coach Richard Abiador is impressed with the amount of talent and motivation that the Jaguars bring to the court each day. Following a fourth-place finish in league last year and an early exit from the playoffs, the coach said the team — which didn’t field any seniors in its first year of existence — was ready to make its mark this time out. He felt it was a successful first year, but the players wanted more.
Other players making an impact are Alisa Kim, a senior defensive specialist and Gonzaga University commit, and Sofia DeCoteau, a junior middle blocker. “She can jump out of the gym,” Abiador said of the 5-10 DeCoteau.
Kim has been playing volleyball since the sixth grade and brings a wealth of energy and leadership to the back court.
“As the game kind of goes along, she helps our team make adjustments,” said Abiador, calling Kim the floor general with a high volleyball IQ.
Kim provided a stunning defensive/offensive play against Redmond at the KingCo tourney when she nearly leapt out of her shoes with a parallel dive, somehow getting her hand on the ball and knocking it over the net for a point.
It’s those kinds of plays that have the Jaguars rolling strong this season. Abiador said that the team’s lone loss, at press time, to Issaquah in the regular season helped them refocus and prepare for the remainder of the season.
“So after that match, we realized that no team is unbeatable and you gotta work day in and day out, every practice, every touch to be the best that you can be, so that you can withstand those kind of defeats,” Abiador said.
Added Wilks, who has put in a lot of extra work to get acclimated at outside hitter: “Since most of us played together last year, we’ve had a lot of time to jell, and bringing in the new players is really easy and really smooth. It’s just really awesome to be out there on the court and have all of us be operating at such a high level. It’s been a really fun season.”
Howard said pre-game visualization of plays they might face has been a vital part of the Jaguars’ success. She said that setters are like the quarterbacks on the court and need to possess stellar leadership skills and be communicative, aggressive and demanding.
Volleyball is never far from Howard’s mind.
“I’ll be like daydreaming in class, be like, ‘Oh my god, I just set her so perfect,’” Howard said with a smile and a laugh.