First-year Westland High School girls volleyball coach Eric Hughes believes the key to turning around the program is an emphasis on defense.
Last season, the Cougars finished 3-19 overall and 0-14 in the OCC-Central Division and lost to Westerville Central 25-11, 25-13, 25-8 in the first round of the Division I district tournament.
Westland opens Tuesday, Aug. 28, at home against Marysville in a league match.
"I see an absolute huge change so far," Hughes said. "The girls are starting to play the type of defense that I've been trying to get them to play for the last couple of years. We have moved a few girls into different positions that will better affect the team. We have new girls coming up to play new positions and we're definitely going to surprise some people this year."
A 2003 graduate of Reynoldsburg who played volleyball at the club level, Hughes served as junior varsity coach last season. He takes over the varsity team from Ellen Schmidt, who resigned after one season. Schmidt will remain director of the Westland Volleyball Club and Hughes is assistant director.
Westland returns seven players from a year ago, including senior Bianca Anderson, who has moved from middle blocker to outside hitter. Last season, she was honorable mention all-league.
Also back are seniors Hollie Hawse (defensive specialist), Taylor Moreno (outside hitter), Stephanie Mitchell (defensive specialist) and Hannah Overturf (libero) and juniors Erika Moore (setter) and Maria Turner (libero).
Moreno and Overturf split time between varsity and j.v. last season.
Also on the team are senior Amber Rose (right-side hitter), sophomores Kyleigh Jackson (middle blocker), Abigail McCormick (middle blocker) and Taylor Mitchell (right-side hitter) and freshman Jenna Panning (outside hitter).
Last season in the OCC-Central, Westland finished eighth behind Dublin Coffman (14-0), Upper Arlington (12-2), Hilliard Davidson (8-6), Central Crossing (7-7), Worthington Kilbourne (7-7), Thomas Worthington (6-8) and Hilliard Darby (2-12).
As part of OCC realignment this summer, Darby and Kilbourne moved to the OCC-Cardinal and were replaced by Marysville and Olentangy Liberty, which had been in the OCC-Cardinal.
Hughes believes his team will be more competitive in the league this season.
"The biggest thing is we're not going to be a punching bag anymore," he said. "We're going to put our names back on the map for girls volleyball."
Cross country team feature underclassmen
The cross country teams opened by competing in the OHSAA Preseason Invitational on Aug. 18 at National Trail Raceway, site of the state meet.
The boys team finished 25th (850) in the 25-team section A race behind champion Hilliard Davidson (59).
Sophomore Bryce Long led the Cougars, finishing 221st of 229 runners in 23 minutes, 18.05 seconds.
Also competing were sophomore Andrew Ritchie (23:36.35), juniors Kurt Guffey (23:37.58) and Connor Scott (24:53.77) and sophomore Andrew Choate (25:26.02).
Guffey and Ritchie are the Cougars' only returnees. Rounding out the team is Freshman Silas Birdsell.
The girls team did not have enough runners for a team score in the 25-team section A race as Mason (64) won.
Sophomore Heidi Paxson led the Cougars, finishing 190th of 232 (24:58.58).
Also competing were freshman Elizabeth Finley (25:13.09), junior Haylee Brown (27:48.46) and sophomore Fabiola Morquecho-Garcia (29:31.87).
Brown, Paxson and junior Lindsay Vachon are returnees.
"We have a lot of inexperienced runners," sixth-year coach Josh Barkeloo said. "Nobody is more than a second-year runner, so I was happy to see that a lot of the kids' first meet this season was on average about a minute faster than their first meet last year. There's definitely a progression that they're going through."
Westland will compete in the Canal Winchester Invitational on Wednesday, Aug. 29.
"I like coaching people of all ability levels," Barkeloo said. "Our goals are going to be a little bit different this year because we have so many people that are new to the sport. We're going to try to make sure that they get more and more excited about running cross country every week and we're going to look at progress and personal gain throughout the season."
Last season, both the boys and girls teams did not have enough runners for a team score in the OCC-Central and Division I, district 2 meets.
At district, Ritchie led the boys (92nd, 20:30) and 2012 graduate Moni Neri led the girls (70th, 23:42.66).
Football team loses starting quarterback
The football team played its opener against the Columbus Crusaders on Aug. 24 without junior quarterback Myles Fowler, who broke the ring finger on his non-throwing left hand during a scrimmage against Canal Winchester on Aug. 16.
Coach Steve White said Fowler's status for the remainder of the season was uncertain. Senior Jalen Brown (6-foot-3, 170 pounds) has taken over at quarterback.
"Jalen is a very similar type of player," White said. "He's a tall kid and very similar speed to Myles, but he didn't have the reps that Myles got since June."
The Cougars play host to Mifflin on Friday, Aug. 31.
Last season, Westland lost to the Punchers 27-7 in week two, the first of nine consecutive losses.
The Cougars had the ball inside the Mifflin 20-yard line six times but managed to get into the end zone only once.
"I've always been of the philosophy just to worry about this year," White said. "We're going to learn from last year's game, but I really don't think you dwell on it. We're going to move forward and worry about this year.
"(Mifflin is) a little more multi-faceted offensively than they were last year. They've done some spread offensive stuff, which they really didn't do last year. They were more of a tight-end set (last year)."