The Hilliard Darby High School boys volleyball team will be seeking its fourth consecutive trip to the state tournament this season, but 11th-year coach Bryan Webb doesn't want his players looking too far ahead.
"Everyone in the hallways and classrooms can talk about it and every opponent will be out to give us their best shot, but our focus is to be our best every day," he said. "If we do that, good things will happen. But we have to work at it daily and not think ahead."
Last season, the Panthers finished 26-4 overall after losing to top-ranked Cincinnati Moeller 25-20, 25-10, 25-17 in the state final. They had advanced to the championship match for the first time in their 15-year history by beating Cincinnati St. Xavier 21-25, 25-15, 29-27, 11-25, 15-13 in a quarterfinal and 2011 state champion Lakewood St. Edward 25-22, 21-25, 25-23, 23-25, 15-5 in a semifinal.
The Panthers, who will face Moeller on April 20 and St. Edward on May 4, open Saturday, March 30, in the Wheaton (Ill.) Warrenville South Tiger Classic.
Warrenville South was ranked No. 1 in the country last season by ESPN The Magazine.
"We've got a tough schedule and that's why our focus is on being our best every day," Webb said. "We know if we can go out and compete our best against some of the opponents we'll be playing, that'll get us ready for the postseason."
Darby was the top seed in the East Region a year ago and defeated Westerville South 25-12, 25-7, 25-9 in its postseason opener and Olentangy Liberty 25-23, 25-16, 25-17 in the regional final to advance to state.
The Panthers also won its 13th consecutive league championship, going 10-0 in the OCC-Ohio Division to finish ahead of Davidson (8-2), Worthington Kilbourne (5-5), Thomas Worthington (3-7), Upper Arlington (2-8) and Dublin Coffman (1-9). Bradley has moved into the OCC-Ohio, replacing Kilbourne.
Darby opens league play April 4, at home against Coffman.
The Panthers return nine players in seniors Nic Baker (6-foot-4, outside hitter), Eric Bowman (6-5, middle hitter), J.B. Brinkerhoff (6-5, outside hitter), Thane Fanfulik (6-4, setter), Jarrod Kelso (6-6, middle hitter), Zach Kuebler (5-10, outside hitter/ defensive specialist), Steven Prosser (6-0, libero) and Clay Schmidt (6-6, middle hitter) and junior Jesse Print (6-1, outside hitter).
Fanfulik and Kelso both were named second-team all-state and first-team all-region last season.
Also on the roster are juniors Zach Cowen (6-4, middle hitter), Joey Engle (6-0, outside hitter), Brian Lee (6-1, libero) and Evan Prather (6-2, outside hitter/middle hitter).
"Like last season, I expect all of those guys to play a big role," Webb said. "We will have three or four of them go on to play in college, although none of them has signed at this moment. Beyond that, we have good players at all positions with backups who can also make plays."
Jaguars maintain high expectations
Despite returning only two starters, Bradley is looking for similar results as last season, when it finished 21-5 overall, placed second in the OCC-Capital and made its first appearance in the Division I state tournament.
The Jaguars, who lost to Moeller 25-11, 25-15, 25-17 in a state quarterfinal, have moved to the OCC-Ohio this spring.
"My goal for this team is to finish first or second in the league and win 90 percent of our non-league matches," said third-year coach Zach Franklin, whose team opens Tuesday, April 2, with a league match at Thomas Worthington. "If we can do that, we'll have a good season."
The returning starters are seniors Eric Bell and Elliott Bell, who are twins. Elliott, a setter, was first-team all-league and second-team all-region a year ago and Eric, a libero, was second-team all-league and honorable mention all-region.
"They are the two players who contributed to our state-qualifying team," Franklin said. "Both were voted captains by their teammates and have shown tremendous leadership thus far.
"Elliott is looking for even higher things this year with his focus on setting. Eric is also one of the better liberos in the Central District."
Bradley also returns seniors Nicholas Hoppe (5-10, outside hitter), Joe Sundberg (6-1, right-side hitter) and Clay Vawter (6-4, middle hitter), with junior Zac Davis (6-4, middle hitter) and freshman Jackson Gilbert (6-3, outside hitter) rounding out the roster. Davis missed last season with an injury.
"We don't really have any depth currently," Franklin said. "We have only two sophomores and eight freshmen on (junior varsity), but most aren't quite ready to compete at the varsity level. We are a little undersized, so we're focusing more on ball control and defense to make up for it."
Last season, Bradley went 8-2 in the OCC-Capital to finish behind Gahanna (10-0) and ahead of Mount Vernon (6-4), Delaware (2-8), Pickerington North (2-8) and Pickerington Central (0-10).
The Jaguars were seeded fourth in the East Region and defeated Delaware 25-12, 25-15, 25-17 in their opening match, third-seeded Davidson 21-25, 25-22, 18-25, 25-15, 15-13 in a semifinal and second-seeded Gahanna 17-25, 21-25, 25-20, 27-25, 15-9 in the final.
Wildcats short on experience
Davidson returns only four players from last season, when it finished 19-6 and placed second in the OCC-Ohio at 8-2.
The Wildcats tied Beavercreek for 10th in the final state poll but lost to Bradley in a regional semifinal after opening the postseason with a 25-19, 20-25, 26-24, 25-18 win over Upper Arlington.
"What our staff is concerned with is the lack of varsity experience at the setting and outside positions," said seventh-year coach Jay Cauley, whose team opens Tuesday, April 2, with a league match at Coffman. "We do have a very young group, the youngest group I have had in my time here, but it is also a very hungry group that is eager to learn and compete."
Among the seven players from last season who were lost to graduation was setter Matt Briskey, who was region Player of the Year.
The returnees are seniors Cameron Hunt (6-2, middle blocker), Adam Mansour (6-4, middle blocker), Yahya Sheihk (defensive specialist) and Bailey Witt (defensive specialist).
"We are very strong in the middle this year with Adam and Cameron solidifying our offense in the middle and Bailey and Yahya both being strong defensive specialists," Cauley said. "Those four will be the focus of our offense and the focus of our passing and defense."
Also on the roster are senior Hani Tout (opposite hitter), juniors Anwar Hussein (middle blocker/opposite hitter), Bradley Petrella (outside hitter), Matthew Sheely (outside hitter) and Jonathan Wegener (opposite hitter) and sophomores Aksels Grants (setter/opposite hitter), Jake Russell (setter) and Josh Russell (outside hitter). The Russells are twins.
"We want to compete for an OCC title and a regional title," Cauley said. "We always want to be one of the top programs in our region and compete against some of the top teams in the state on our schedule.
"We have very capable backups at every position and have the option to move some guys around to different positions, giving us some flexibility."