BY DAN STICKRADT
ROCHESTER HILLS — For those around Lake Orion’s volleyball program, the 2011 seasons was a campaign to remember. But despite advancing the Final Four and finishing as the Class A state runner-up a year ago, Lake Orion’s season of dreams did not include a league title.
The Dragons have earmarked a conference championship among its long list of goals this season.
“I think that is one or our goals this season,” offered first-year Lake Orion head coach Ross Talbott, an assistant coach on last year’s team. “With all of the success we had last year, we still finished second to Clarkston in our league.”
Lake Orion defeated Clarkston in the state semifinals last season after dropping a five-game thriller to the Wolves last October in the OAA Red Division league finale. This season the Dragons and Clarkston should be among the leaders once again, although several other teams in the league field more competitive teams this season.
“The OAA is back,” admitted Talbott, who watched the Dragons get swept by Rockford in last year’s Class A state finals. “Last year we had two really good teams that both got to the Final Four, but the rest of the league was really young overall. This year I think the competitiveness of the league will be the way it was 4-5 years ago.”
Last year’s head coach Bob Howey took a promotion in June at his firm and didn’t have the time needed to devote to coaching full-time. Talbott, who has deep roots in the club circuit in the Metro Detroit area, stepped in and the program has not missed a beat.
“I really like the way we have been playing overall,” said Talbott. “We did graduate eight players but we had a lot of kids just waiting in the wings. And our (junior varsity) team is undefeated right now. We have a lot of talent in our program. We should be good for the next 4-5 years. We have a lot of kids that are playing with very good club teams.”
Last season Lake Orion finished 54-13-3, establishing a school record for wins, and was 7-1 in conference play. This season the Dragons are a fine 20-6-0 overall one month into the season and 1-0 in conference play following a 3-0 sweep of host Rochester Adams last week.
The Dragons loaded up the calendar with an extremely tough list of tournaments to help prepare them for the postseason run. The plan worked and it is a plan Lake Orion will Again follow in 2012.
“We played a great schedule last season and we plan to do the same this year,” said Talbott, whose team has finished in the top four at three separate tournaments this season. “We have to this season. They changed the districts around and our vis a whole lot tougher.”
A district shift now has Clarkston and Lake Orion in the same district, meaning that only one team could potentially advance beyond the first week of the postseason. Lake Orion has only won four districts and two regionals in the past 25 years.
The Dragons graduated eight of its 17 players off last season’s roster but the talent pool is far from running dry. Gone are three all-staters and five regular starters.
One of the team’s top returnees, 5-foot-11 senior middle hitter Emily Kipp, who saw plenty of action last season, fractured her ankle back in early august and won’t return until mid-October. Still, the team has displayed excellent depth and balance so far this season.
.“I really like our depth. We’re really 17 deep. We play everybody and we don’t have much of a drop off,” said Talbott. “We don’t have one dominant player. But we are a lot of very good players in the back row that play solid defense and a lot of hitters that are getting the job done. I thought we got a lot tonight from several players.”
Sophie Murdock, a 6-foot-2 middle hitter, is one of the team’s top seniors and the sole player back that started on a regular basis. Sophomore middle hitter Hannah Murdock (6-1), senior outside hitter Melanie Heath, junior OH Gaby Kalugar, junior OH/MH Kayla Rockey, sophomore setter Rachel Giwa, senior setter Sabrina Cottrell, junior defensive specialist Tess Marshall and senior DS Kiana Brown and junior libero Rachel Livingway are also among the team’s leaders so far this season.
“We have some nice kids that either didn’t start last season or played on our JV or freshmen teams. We knew that we wouldn’t drop off the map this season,” offered Talbott. “Last year we had some very good seniors. We had two girls that were All-State and a third that was All-State Honorable Mention. This year we have a lot more balance. I think that is one of our strengths. If we can make another run this season, I think it will be our balance and our depth.”
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