A realigned OCC-Ohio Division forced coach Ruth Sunkle to quit scheduling some of the Newark High School girls volleyball team's most demanding early season non-league matches.

A realigned OCC-Ohio Division forced coach Ruth Sunkle to quit scheduling some of the Newark High School girls volleyball team's most demanding early season non-league matches.

"We don't have as many now. I always liked the rivalries we had going with Dublin Scioto and the others, too," she said. "We're playing Scioto later in the year (Sept. 27), but we won't play Dublin Coffman, Watterson, Westerville North or Hilliard Davidson."

Facing those opponents always proved to be a learning experience for the Wildcats, who started 0-7 last season yet still contended for the OCC-Ohio title, placing second (8-2) behind Lancaster (9-1) en route to going 14-11. They've clearly been late bloomers in recent seasons courtesy of that front-loaded schedule, winning 13 consecutive matches at one point in 2006 on their way to finishing 19-6 overall and winning the league.

Coffman, Watterson and Scioto captured the Division I district titles a year ago, and Cincinnati Mother of Mercy won the state championship.

"The end results have been pretty good," said Sunkle, whose team opened last Saturday at Kettering Fairmont against Fairmont Cincinnati Ursuline and will play Tuesday at Gahanna and Thursday at home against Reynoldsburg in their first two OCC-Ohio matches. "We really grew and improved playing all those Columbus teams."

Sunkle has extra firepower on the front line now and will employ a 6-2 offense full-time instead of transitioning between that and a 5-1. Senior Olivia Bybee is back at setter and sophomore Mackenzie Wheeler is the other one.

Kelsey Gray, a 6-foot-2 senior, anchors the middle now that Erin Thomasson, who was ThisWeek's Player of the Year as a junior, graduated and is playing at Findlay. Heather Hammonds, a 6-0 senior, also is playing middle hitter, moving from the outside. Both are fourth-year starters. The other returnees are seniors Paige Pastorius (outside hitter) and Trisha Ball (defensive specialist).

"The girls have worked hard and looked pretty good in our scrimmages," said Sunkle, whose team concluded last season with a 25-21, 25-17, 25-11 loss to second-seeded Davidson in a Division I district semifinal, winning twice in the tournament, including eliminating 11th-seeded Dublin Jerome 24-26, 25-12, 25-15, 25-22 in the second round.

Also playing are juniors Kassey Tingler (outside hitter/backrow specialist) and Lindsey Overby (outside hitter). The other sophomores are Stefanie Scott (right-side hitter) and Tanadra Spivey (right-side hitter) and Jaynee Hiegel (defensive specialist).

Joining Reynoldsburg as OCC-Ohio newcomers are Pickerington North, Pickerington Central and Grove City. Lancaster, Gahanna and Groveport also remain, giving each team a 14-match league schedule as opposed to 10. North went 10-0 to win the OCC-Central a year ago and is coached by Kris Kerns, who helped build the program at Lancaster and in his first season with the Panthers a year ago surpassed 500 career victories.