KEARNEY — Six-foot girls apparently do not grow on trees.
If they do, someone chopped down Kearney Catholic’s tree after last year’s state championship.
After an undefeated season in 2012, which included three 6-foot front-row players and another who could outjump them all, the Stars face a tall rebuilding task — pun intended.
“We’ll be down in height, but we’re not going to be down much in speed or defense, and the hitting ... will be there by the end,” KCHS coach Kris Conner said. “Maybe we will have to focus on attacking teams’ weaknesses, not always hitting our strong, favorite shot.”
How far have the Stars, who had six seniors, dropped down?
Instead of 6-foot-2 and 6-foot middle blockers Bailey Sokolowski and Megan Anderson, the Stars are looking at 5-9 Callie Opbroek as the only returning letter winner.
Instead of 6-foot-1 Therin Baum on the right side, the returning letter winners are 5-8 McKenzie Butler and 5-5 Whitney Colling.
Throw in junior outside hitter Paige Hervert (5-6) as the only other front-row attacker, who is replacing standouts Michaela Mestl and Kalyn Brannagan, and it’s easy to see how people can overlook the Stars — again, pun intended.
But this might not be a team to laugh at, especially if defense and setting mean anything.
Returning as setter is Shayla Conner, who has verbally committed to play next year for Washburn University. Back in the back row are All-Hub Territory libero Morgan Stute, as well as Allie Prososki and Hervert — all regulars last year — and another letter winner in McKenzie Smith.
“My biggest challenge is ... to get all those players in. I’ve got four, almost five players, who deserve to be out there. It will be challenge to get all of them playing time,” coach Conner said.
And they’re all more than adequate players.
“Defensively, if we can keep it solid, we frustrate a lot of players and teams. ... We’re so darn scrappy and tenacious on defense,” she said.
Some of the back-row players, especially Hervert and Stute, can make the transition to the front row. Hervert will, Stute might not because every offensive attack starts with a good pass to the setter and few are better than Stute.
“If we take Morgan out of libero, things don’t quite click as good as they do when she’s in the back row for six rotations,” coach Conner said.
Making the offense click is Shayla Conner’s job. She will be adjusting to all new hitters — players she hasn’t played with for a long time because she made the leap to varsity starter two years ago.
Coach Conner, her mother, said Shayla will become more of an attacker this year, in an effort to add another weapon to the Stars’ offense.
And when she’s not attacking, there is plenty of confidence in the new faces around her. After all, she’s seen them across the net for two years and sometimes beating them wasn’t all that easy.
“When you play against the best players, it’s going to help,” coach Conner said. “Last year they got some great experience. By the end of the season, the starters last year had to work hard to win those matches.
In the process, this year’s hitters gained a lot of court savvy and they’ll be prepared for taller opponents.
“They’re not as tall, but they had to think last year how to get around that block and how to make things quick because they had some big blockers to go against,” Conner said.
One thing she said this year’s team can claim on an equal footing as last year’s is a competitive desire to win. They showed that in the Top Ten Tournament earlier this month, defending their title against teams like North Platte, Minden, Northwest and St. Paul. They also defeated the team that went on to win the University of Northern Colorado’s 160-team summer tournament.
“We were down a bunch of times and came back. I saw some good leadership going on out on the court. They just refused to lose,” Conner said.