New coach. New faces. New era.
The Stillwater High volleyball team is about to begin its 2019 campaign and it’s under new leadership that wants to continue the success from the past two years. SHS advanced to the Class 6A state tournament during the past two seasons, and finished as state runner-up last fall.
A large senior class graduated, which included its top two hitters – Jazzmin Kloos and Audrey Riley – leaving to continue their volleyball careers at the college level. Zoe Stinchcomb resigned as coach after just two years in Stillwater to take the head coaching job at Bixby High.
Enter Kyle Liechti as coach of the Lady Pioneers. Liechti and his staff have been preparing his team for Tuesday’s season opener – a home match against Ponca City scheduled to start at 6 p.m. As a first-time high school coach of a team full of new faces to the varsity level, Liechti is trying to instill a new regime at Stillwater, and it’s one that begins with the basics.
“We’re kind of coming in here with culture, new standard,” Liechti said. “It’s something that’s new to them, I think. We’re starting to see a few of them buy into that, so that’s nice, but we’re still working with the whole team to get up to that point. We’re back to fundamentals, so that can be frustrating for them, but we’re kind of rebuilding from the ground up and shaping it so we can build from here.
“We’re kind of retraining the game strategy wise, fundamentals and everything. We’re getting them to buy into the process a little bit. A little by little, it’s slowly working.”
Through the first few weeks of practice this summer, the Lady Pioneers have primarily spent time learning the ways of their new coach, and what he wants them to to become. Thus far, it’s gone fairly well, but like most teams before their first competition, there is still plenty to work on.
This year, Stillwater has embraced the slogan, “Nothing given, everything earned.” It’s their phrase used when breaking down huddles in practices.
“I’m a full believer that sports or athletics can teach you more about life than you realize,” Liechti said. “The big ticket items are learning to communicate with others, learning discipline and how to stay disciplined, respect, attitude and work ethic. We’re just trying to instill that work ethic in them that they have to work hard for everything, because nothing is given to them.”
When the Lady Pioneers do begin playing Tuesday, they will have a few experienced players from the past two state teams. Two of those are senior setters in Lauren Phillips and McKenzie Vilade, who are both committed to Wichita State University and Oklahoma Baptist University, respectively.
Both players have been starting setters since their sophomore years. They will likely help lead the team this fall.
“They will probably be our setters, but we’re doing a whole new discipline and culture thing, so playing time is directly correlated with practice time,” Liechti said. “So, especially the start of the season, we might be seeing some new faces or people you haven’t seen before, just because of time in the gym, strictly. They are our senior leaders and setters, and we have a little bit more developing to do, but we’ve got talent here.”
Phillips and Vilade aren’t the only seniors on the squad. Shakira Lane is back as a potential outside hitter, while Chloe Kelly and Samantha Sanchez are also returning as front-line players for their senior seasons.
All five have varsity experience, and they’re all becoming leaders on and off the court this year.
“I think with a new coaching staff, they all kind of started on the same level,” Liechti said. “It helps to have those leaders. I know they get looked up to a lot, but we’ve got a lot of other girls stepping up, too, which is great.”
Liechti is tasked with trying to replace Kloos and Riley with new outside hitters. They were the top hitters from the past two years, so it’s not an easy task.
Through last week, Liechti hadn’t allowed his team to swing at a ball during practice. He said he wanted to make sure the fundamental base was there first.
Stillwater did scrimmage Friday and he said it didn’t go too bad, but there is still plenty to work on moving forward. Yet, he feels confident the team will develop hitters to make the offense a tough one to face this fall.
“It’s looking good,” Liechti said. “Part of the whole reason we took them back to the fundamentals and aren’t letting them swing for this long is because we just had too many bad habits and things that could possibly lead to injury. So, we’re just starting from scratch and getting back to the basics. This is how we do it and it’s looking like it’s going to lead to some good hitters.”
Heading into Tuesday, the roster is not set and likely won’t be, as Liechti said all spots are open and available.
“We keep telling the girls there are six spots on the court and there are 25 of you,” Liechti said. “I’m willing to put every single one of those 25 on varsity. Every single person has a replacement. Everybody can work for a spot.”
The freshman match begins at 4 p.m. Tuesday with junior varsity at 5 p.m. and varsity at 6 p.m.
“I’m ready to see them compete and I think the girls are ready to compete,” Liechti said. “We definitely have a lot of work to do yet as far as fundamentals and skills wise. I think overall, we’re ready.”
Follow Jimmy Gillispie on Twitter @jgillispie_stw for Stillwater High sports updates and live updates from Tuesday’s home volleyball match.