The Hilliard Darby High School girls volleyball program continues to take steps forward and the Panthers are hoping that a new coach won't be a hiccup along that path.

The Hilliard Darby High School girls volleyball program continues to take steps forward and the Panthers are hoping that a new coach won't be a hiccup along that path.

Shane Farrell stepped down after two years as the coach to spend more time with his newborn son. Replacing him is Megan Ballinger, who was an assistant with the team last season and spent the previous five years coaching club volleyball.

Ballinger takes over a team that lost to Davidson 25-19, 25-23, 20-25, 25-19 in the second round of the Division I district tournament to finish 13-10 overall. The Panthers finished third (6-4) in the OCC-Ohio Division behind Lancaster (9-1) and Newark (8-2) and ahead of Gahanna (5-5), Westland (1-9) and Groveport (1-9).

The Panthers will be young after losing five graduates, but they will have the advantage of those young players being experienced. Sophomores Hayley Benson, Kelly Dalton and Olivia Matthews all received varsity playing time last season. Benson, who Ballinger said improved a lot in the offseason, is expected to be the team's top blocker. Complementing those three will be senior Shane Jackson, who will be counted on to be the team's top hitter.

"We're young in age because we have a lot of sophomores who will play, but we have a lot of talent on our team," Ballinger said. "We've only got two seniors so we're really excited about this year to get some varsity experience for a lot of the girls.

"We're definitely an offensive team. We have a great setter who will run a great offense. We have a lot of smart, powerful hitters on our offense. Defensively I hope for us to be a strong blocking team. We have height and that always helps."

Darby is competing in the OCC-Central Division now with Central Crossing, Dublin Coffman, Davidson, Thomas Worthington, Worthington Kilbourne, Upper Arlington and Westland.

In order for Darby to challenge for the league title, Ballinger said the Panthers will need to improve their communication skills on the court.

"It's easy for them to be quiet so we have to work on the chatter on the court, which is pretty important in volleyball," Ballinger said.

In addition to challenging for a league title, the Panthers have other high goals.

"We talked about being undefeated on our home court and that's something we really want to do," Ballinger said. "We also want to make it farther in the tournament. We want to get beyond the second round and we'd like to play into late October and early November."

Davidson expects to sustain the same level of success it has in the past despite losing seven graduates from a team which finished 20-4 overall after losing to Dublin Scioto 25-17, 17-25, 25-23, 32-30 in a Division I district championship.

The Wildcats went 8-2 in the OCC-Buckeye to finish second behind Coffman (9-1) and ahead of Westerville North (6-4), Reynoldsburg (4-6), Grove City (2-8) and UA (2-8).

Davidson is competing in the OCC-Central with Central Crossing, Coffman, Darby, Thomas, Kilbourne, UA and Westland.

"We've got to change some things around," coach Betty Cameron said. "This season will be totally different than any other season with all the new schools. You just do your best to try and fill those positions."

The four players returning are senior Alex Blackmon and juniors Ashton Krajewski, Lindsay Sumrell and Addie Goodwin. Mackenzie Scheerer has come up from the j.v. and will be a middle hitter. Cameron said the final starting position is currently up for grabs.

The Wildcats only have one player on the roster who is taller than 6-foot.

"I want us consistently improving every day," Cameron said. "Our strategy is that we're trying to get a basic offense and a basic defense down and we want to try to keep the ball in play before we can run a lot of plays. We're trying to stick to the basics."

Though the Wildcats must find new starters at every position and play some players who had no varsity experience last year, Cameron is optimistic.

"We want to be in the top three in the league and the league has changed so there are some new teams we haven't seen before," she said. "We want to be preparing ourselves for the tournament and maybe we can make some surprises at the end of the year."

At a glance

DARBY

Coach: Megan Ballinger, first season

Next match: Today at Central Crossing

Key players: Hayley Benson, Shanee' Jackson and Olivia Mathews

DAVIDSON

Coach: Betty Cameron, 10th season

Next match: Today at Thomas Worthington

Key players: Alex Blackmon, Addie Goodwin and Lindsay Sumrell