The loss of nine seniors — including six starters — off its first state championship team should mean Shiloh Christian volleyball is rebuilding this season.
Unfortunately for the rest of the 4A-Northwest Conference, that isn’t the case. The Lady Saints simply reloaded and once again should be the team to beat in 2016.
Third-year coach Nathan Bodenstein led the Lady Saints to a runner-up finish in his first season and followed that up with last year’s Class 4A championship.
“We’ve experience a lot of good things, so now the pressure is on,” Bodenstein said. “Expectations are set high, which is not a bad thing. I urge [the team] to not be happy with where you are because it’s not going to come easily. You still have to work hard.
“It’s not the same team, and we’re not going to walk on the court and win just because we’re Shiloh.”
Three All-State performers graduated, including 5-foot-11 outside hitter Reagan Robinson, who signed with the Arkansas Razorbacks after earning the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s All-Arkansas Preps Outstanding Player of the Year honors a year ago.
They do return a pair of All-Conference performers in senior middle blocker Haley Richards (6-1) and senior setter Hannah Smithson (5-7). Other seniors are outside hitter Sarah Rountree (5-8), right side hitter Hallie May (5-8) and middle blocker Olivia Barnes, who returns after a two-year absence from volleyball. At 6-2, Barnes will play opposite of Richards, who recorded nine kills in a 3-0 win against Mena is the state finals.
“[Richards is] probably the best blocker I’ve ever coached and just has a really good feel for the game,” Bodenstein said. “We need all five seniors to have a really good year.”
That’s because there’s only one junior in libero Taylor Larson (5-2) to go along with 14 sophomores out of 20 players on the roster.
“A lot of youth — I may be gray headed by the end of this year,” said the 29-year-old Bodenstein. “Out of that sophomore group, we probably need five or more of them to play a lot of time, so there will be growing pains.”
Sophomore Lexi Richards, who’s Haley’s sister, is the fifth from her family to play volleyball at Shiloh Christian. She’s 6-foot and was brought up to “get a taste” of varsity after the junior high season concluded last season.
Led by Lexi Richards, the sophomore class has loads of talent. In junior high, the group won a pair of conference and district tournament titles and never dropped a set against any conference opponent.
“They know how to win and know how to play, but varsity is a totally different ball game,” Bodenstein said.
Shiloh Christian posted a 28-0 mark against conference foes over the past two seasons. The Lady Saints have only lost three sets during that time — all against Huntsville.
Because of new district assignments, the Lady Eagles and Lady Saints won’t hook it up in district play during the regular season. However, they will face off during the 4A Northwest Conference tournament, which is why Bodenstein scheduled a non-conference game at Huntsvile on Sept. 12.
“If we are both undefeated [in district play], then who’s the No. 1 seed [at the conference tournament],” Bodenstein said. “It was left up to the coaches to decide if that happens, and so I wanted to get that game on the schedule. So, if they beat us, then we can say they should be the No. 1 seed.”
The Lady Saints will compete in the 1A/4A-1 district against Decatur, Elkins, Gentry, Gravette, Lincoln, Prairie Grove and West Fork while Huntsville will play 1A/4A-2 games against Alpena, Berryville, Eureka Springs, Green Forest and Pea Ridge. Then, nine of those teams will meet for the 4A Northwest Conference Tournament, including Shiloh Christian and Huntsville.
Shiloh Christian has a benefit game at Bentonville on Aug. 18 before hosting Rogers Heritage to open the season on Aug. 25.
2016 SHILOH CHRISTIAN VOLLEYBALL SCHEDULE