KELLOGG — The Kellogg Lady Wildcats came into this volleyball season with a lot of expectations.
The perfect blend of skill, size, experience — and memories.
After their first trip to state in more than 20 years fell flat, coach Steph Brunner wanted the girls to remember the feelings they felt after they were eliminated by Snake River.
“I think we all felt a little embarrassed by how we played down there,” Brunner said. “We were upset and knew we were better than we showed. I think more than anything we want to get back to the State Tournament to prove that we are better than we had showed.”
It would appear that all of the players from last year’s squad have remembered that feeling.
They’ve jumped out to a 6-3 record (one of those losses was a short, best of three match against 5A power Eagle), including a 4-0 start to their Intermountain League schedule, and are in firm control of the league’s top spot.
After running through Bonners Ferry, CDA Charter, and Priest River, the Wildcats were on the road this last weekend for a their first meeting of the season with Timberlake, the team that had held a stranglehold on the IML for nearly the last decade.
“We got after them right away,” Brunner said. “We knew that they would be the team who would challenge us the most because they’ve been there for so long. They have so much experience.”
Four sets later and the Wildcats were in sole possession of the IML’s top spot and halfway to one of their season goals.
“At the beginning of this season we made hosting Districts one of our goals and we’re halfway there,” Brunner said. “You have to win league to be the host. And with five teams, including Timberlake, in the league you have to win a lot of tough matches to do that.”
Fortunately for Brunner, she has a team with far more experience playing at a high level than any Wildcat volleyball team has had in decades.
“We have so many players who are good at so many things,” Brunner said. “I would put our front line up against just about anyone in the region and probably anyone at our level in the State.”
Brunner has depth at her disposal too, which allows for her to avoid almost any weakness in her rotations.
“We have some pretty terrific players on our back row too,” Brunner said. “And it’s great because some games it’s Erin (Van Hoose), or it’s Chloe (Wilbur), or it’s Piper (Rainio), and there are some games where it’s all three playing extremely well. Then we have girls like Jaron (Figueroa), or Grace (Nearing) who do a little bit of everything for us. We have some real size though and it makes it difficult for teams to figure out how they want to attack us.”
That size comes in the form of Cierra Brandt, Hailey Cheney, Sam Bryant and Caitlin Wendt, who all have shown prowess at the net that would make Dikembe Mutombo wag his finger.
Cheney and Brandt have been particularly menacing for opposing teams, especially when they get into such a zone that they are visibly smiling as they block and kill everything that comes their way.
“We know that we have depth, but we also know that we have players like Hailey, Jaron, and Cierra who can take over games when needed for us,” Brunner said. “Every single girl on this team plays a vital role for us, in games, in practice, everywhere. We have such a solid blend of everything.”
That everything Brunner mentioned also ties in things like attitude, which can be a make or break part of even the most talented teams.
“It can be hard for girls to come together and trust one another,” Brunner said. “But you can see when it starts to click, suddenly everything begins going right. I think we’re almost there, but I know we have another level we can get to.”
With the possibility of hosting their District Tournament, and then playing in another State Tournament (this time being hosted in Kootenai County), it feels like the stars are aligning for something special for these Wildcats.
Kellogg has a few more home matches, but fans should mark Oct. 8 and 9, on their calendars as the Wildcats host Priest River and Timberlake (respectively) to close out their season.