For first-year Cedar Park Christian volleyball head coach Marni Dreschel, it was quite an inheritance.
After being in the varsity program for four years assisting under Julie Nelson, who took the Eagles to the 1A state tournament six consecutive years, Dreschel took over a group that included six seniors, each of whom played a big role in the team’s third-place finish last November at the Yakima SunDome.
This year’s Eagles are of a very similar mold compared to years past, loaded with offense and team chemistry.
“They just bring a lot of maturity,” Dreschel said about her team’s strong senior core. “The cool thing about this particular group is that they’re close friends, they are girls that want to be with each other, and they’ve grown together as far as being players to teammates. They are showing the younger girls what it means to be a team instead of just a bunch of players on the court.”
The upperclassmen – Mattie Shelford, Ari Gardner, Lyndsay Palmer, Kayla Zacharias, Amy Merkle and Jessica “J.J.” Abbott – have all been playing volleyball together since their preteen years and are looking to end their senior campaigns with a bang.
“The fact that we’ve been together since sixth grade,” said Abbott on what has made the Eagles so successful this season. “We’ve all grown up through the program and been a team. That’s probably helped us the most.”
The success of a volleyball team generally relies foremost on the strength of its hitters, and Cedar Park is as deep as they come in that regard.
At the forefront is Shelford, a 6-foot senior, who will go on to play at Azusa Pacific University next year.
Coming back from an injury that took her out of action for about three weeks, Shelford last Thursday tied a season-high with 14 kills in a win against Emerald City League rival Overlake, the third time she has reached that mark this season.
While Shelford was out, Gardner and Abbott (right), the team’s middle hitters, carried the team on offense, allowing the squad’s versatility to shine.
“We’re able to do a lot of different offenses because these girls aren’t just volleyball players, they’re athletes,” Dreschel said. “They can move around real well.”
In addition, Zacharias has been a key part of the Eagles’ defense, notching a season-high 19 digs against Redmond earlier this month, and Palmer, one of the team’s catalysts on offense who is always a threat for double-digit kills in a match, is equally impressive as a setter. But she hasn’t had to do much setting this year with junior Katarina Estrada on the team, who has averaged better than 23 assists in matches that she has played in this year.
Dreschel stressed that although her girls may be talented on the court, they are very well-rounded individuals and high achievers in school, and in the community.
“The lowest GPA out of that particular group is a 3.6.,” noted Dreschel, who played collegiate volleyball at Pacific Lutheran University. “We’ve got a couple 4.0 students, they like to sing – not necessarily in the choir, but they’re constantly singing, and Kayla Zacharias is very active in her church as a worship leader and does some other volunteer stuff. J.J. Abbott runs track, as well, and does the shot put.”
With the Emerald City League and Tri-District playoffs coming up, the Eagles (10-0 in league play, 12-1 overall) seem a shoo-in to make their seventh consecutive trip to the 1A state tournament. But once they get there, the road to the title will be anything but easy, as the girls well know from past experience.
“It’ll take a lot of focus, at the tournament, to finish as well as we will,” Zacharias said. “We’ll have to be mentally tough.”
Added Shelford, “We got third last year, so we’re hoping to take out King’s and Chelan, and take first.”
This year, the Eagles have played a tough nonleague schedule, which included 4A teams Redmond and Garfield, with the Bulldogs handing the Eagles their only loss of the season – a 3-1 defeat at the beginning of September.
Since then, the red-hot Eagles have reeled off 11 straight wins, and just last weekend, the team traveled to the Monroe Bearcat Classic to take on quality competition. At the tournament, the girls beat Redmond for the second time, along with Shorewood, Archbishop Murphy and South Kitsap en route to a third-place tournament finish.
It seemed to be the perfect late-season tune-up for a state title run.
“The championship is always your goal, especially when you’re used to going,” admitted Dreschel. “Coach Nelson took this team to state the last (six) years, so we have that expectation and we want to get some hardware.”
The Eagles wrap up their regular season next Tuesday night against Annie Wright at home, starting at 6 p.m., with the Emerald City League playoffs getting under way on Oct. 27.