Coming off winning its first state championship and its 14th consecutive league title last season, the Hilliard Darby High School boys volleyball team has returned only one player with significant varsity experience.
The Panthers, who defeated Cincinnati Elder 25-17, 25-15, 25-27, 25-23 in the Division I state championship game to finish 24-2 overall last season, lost eight players from a year ago to graduation, including middle hitter Jarrod Kelso, setter Thane Fanfulik and outside hitter J.B. Brinkerhoff.
Kelso was named Division I Player of the Year and East Region Player of the Year. Fanfulik was first-team all-state and all-region and Brinkerhoff was second-team all-state and first-team all-region.
"It was our fourth season in a row at state, so (the 2013 graduates) had a ton of experience and had grown together," fifth-year coach Bryan Webb said. "The great thing about having a complete program is that we believe we always have a strong senior class ready to go the next year."
The Panthers' most experienced returnee is 6-foot-3 senior outside hitter Jesse Print. Also back with limited experience are seniors Zach Cowen (6-4, middle hitter), Joey Engel (6-1, outside hitter), Brian Lee (6-1, libero) and Evan Prather (6-2, middle hitter).
"(Print) tore his meniscus in the offseason and got a late start in practice," Webb said. "Evan Prather is our only team captain as of now, so we will be relying on him early. Hopefully, a few others step up."
Completing the roster are seniors Hunter Brayfield (6-0, middle hitter) and Austin Salyers (5-9, defensive specialist), juniors Mitchell Hastings (6-1, middle hitter) and Carter Schmidt (6-3, outside hitter) and sophomores Ian Cowen (6-5, setter) and Patrick Snyder (6-4, middle hitter/outside hitter).
"We have a good team balance, good offense from the pins and an excellent libero," Webb said. "We will have to improve in all phases to be successful. We will be focusing on limiting errors."
Darby opened March 27, beating DeSales 25-14, 25-18, 19-25, 22-25, 15-11, but was 1-4 overall and 0-1 in the OCC-Ohio Division before playing Thomas Worthington on April 8.
The Panthers lost to Dublin Coffman 28-26, 15-25, 25-21, 25-20 on April 3 in their league opener and lost all three of their matches in the Warrenville South Tiger Classic on April 5 in Wheaton, Ill.
Darby, which went 10-0 in the OCC-Ohio last season, was scheduled to open league play April 1 at home against Upper Arlington, but the match was moved to Monday, April 14, as the Golden Bears did not have enough players during their spring break.
Wildcats undersized, but experienced
Davidson has returned three starters and seven letterwinners from last season, when it finished 14-12 overall, tied Bradley for second in the OCC-Ohio at 7-3 and reached a Division I East Region final before losing to Gahanna 25-19, 25-22, 18-25, 25-20.
The Wildcats, who were 4-2 overall and 1-0 in the OCC-Ohio before playing Bradley on April 8, are undersized with only two players taller than 6-2. To compensate, Davidson must play well defensively, said eighth-year coach Jay Cauley.
"We are not big. In fact, probably this is the smallest group I have had in my tenure at Davidson," Cauley said. "We will have to be very tough defensively, almost to a stubborn level, and will have to play with a faster tempo than we have offensively in the past to offset our lack of size."
The returning starters are senior Bradley Petrella (6-2, outside hitter/middle blocker) and juniors Jake Russell (5-11, setter) and Josh Russell (6-0, outside hitter).
Last season, Josh Russell was honorable mention all-region and second-team all-league and Jake Russell was special mention all-league.
"Bradley Petrella's experience and leadership ability will be one of our strengths," Cauley said. "The Russell twins lead by example. Their intensity and dedication to the team and sport is contagious and they don't take any plays off in practice or matches. Aksels Grants (6-1, junior opposite hitter) will be called upon to be a leader, also."
Other returnees are seniors Anwar Hussein (6-4, middle blocker) and Matthew Sheely (5-11, outside hitter) and junior Ethan Foster (5-9, opposite hitter/defensive specialist).
Also expected to be key contributors are juniors Amir Mansour (6-2, middle blocker), Karim Ramadan (6-3, middle blocker) and Ziyad Rasul (5-10, libero/defensive specialist).
Completing the roster are juniors Jordan Kenny (5-11, opposite hitter), Sean Liberati (6-1, utility) and Zach Montgomery (5-10, defensive specialist/ libero).
Davidson beat Beavercreek 21-25, 25-20, 28-26, 25-19 in its opener March 21 before losing to DeSales (25-19, 25-19, 25-22) and Cincinnati Elder (25-19, 25-16, 25-18) the next day. The Wildcats opened league play by beating Coffman 25-9, 26-24, 25-17 on April 1, and they defeated Cleveland St. Ignatius (25-17, 25-14, 12-25, 25-16) and Akron Hoban (21-25, 25-16, 25-23, 25-20) on April 5.
Among the players who were lost to graduation last year were middle blockers Adam Mansour and Cameron Hunt. Mansour was first-team all-league and all-region and second-team all-state, and Hunt was second-team all-league and all-region and honorable mention all-state.
Two starters have returned for Jaguars
Bradley has returned two starters from last season, when it finished 10-7 overall, tied Davidson for second in the OCC-Ohio and lost to the Wildcats 17-25, 25-17, 18-25, 25-18, 15-13 in a Division I East Region semifinal.
Senior Zac Davis (6-3, middle hitter) and sophomore Jackson Gilbert (6-3, outside hitter) have returned for fourth-year coach Zach Franklin, whose team was 0-2 overall before opening league play April 8 against Davidson.
Davis was honorable mention all-league last year.
"Our leaders are our two captains, Zac Davis and Jackson Gilbert, as well as (5-9 sophomore) setter Luke Jacobs," Franklin said. "All three played club last season and are the vocal coaches who are really helping assist me with a roster of younger and more inexperienced players."
Others expected to be key contributors include senior Cam Hart (6-1, right-side hitter), sophomores Spencer Dickens (5-9, libero) and Noah Starinsky (6-0, outside hitter) and freshman Matt Howard (6-5, middle hitter).
Rounding out the roster are seniors Adam Bowman (6-3, outside hitter) and Connor Turvy (5-8, defensive specialist) and junior Rafael Diaz (6-3, outside hitter).
"Our strengths will be our all-around athleticism and ability to distribute the swings," Franklin said. "We won't need to rely on one hitter and can get several different players all doing well and contributing. We also have several tough servers that look to put pressure on other teams serve-receive.
"We will need to improve our ball control and get more comfortable with passing, playing defense and communicating because we have a couple of new seniors as well as several sophomores stepping into starting roles."
Among the players from last season who graduated were libero Eric Bell and setter Elliott Bell. Both of the Bells were honorable mention all-state and first-team all-league. In addition, Elliott was first-team all-region and Eric was second team.