The Worthington Kilbourne High School girls volleyball team is coming off two consecutive years of finishing at the top of the OCC-Buckeye Division.

The Worthington Kilbourne High School girls volleyball team is coming off two consecutive years of finishing at the top of the OCC-Buckeye Division.

Those were the program's first two league championships, and the road to a third seemingly is going to be much harder.

The Wolves were 19-6 last season and tied Westerville South for the league championship at 8-2, ahead of Olentangy (7-3), Dublin Jerome (5-5), Mount Vernon (2-8) and Pickerington Central (0-10).

Kilbourne opened last Saturday by beating River Valley 25-21, 25-19, 25-19 and played Hilliard Darby last Tuesday. The Wolves play host to Upper Arlington today and Westland Tuesday.

This year's team doesn't return a player taller than 6-foot and it no longer has a dominant force in Hannah Veith, the 6-1 middle hitter who now is playing for Robert Morris. Veith was the OCC-Buckeye Player of the Year last year.

During the preseason, coach Meladee Hopkins has stressed to her team a need to play faster and to be more diverse offensively.

"We realize that we're pretty small, especially compared to the teams in our new conference," Hopkins said. "But what we lack in size we're going to have to make up for by being scrappy and being quick on the court and covering the court."

Without Veith, the opposition will have more free reign at the net, which will make it easier for them to direct spikes on Kilbourne. That, Hopkins said, will put more pressure on the defense. It will be more worried about making dig than setting up an offensive attack.

There's also going to be more put on senior Amy Kiminas. She takes over at setter for graduate Jill Tremmel (first-team all-league) and will have the responsibility of spreading the offensive attack. She missed last season with an ACL injury.

"Since we don't have the height, we just can't keep running middles all the time," Kiminas said. "We've really been trying to run some diverse sets to use the outsides. Getting new plays that set up quicker. Our serve-receive has really helped us do that because we've improved on serve-receive, which allows us to run quick plays."

Seniors Katie Fleeman and Lilly Haddad will be taking over as the middle hitters after splitting time at that position opposite of Veith. Hopkins hopes to include them in a rotation with junior Andrea Baldwin, who is nursing a wrist injury.

Other outside hitters are junior Kelsey Howard, who played some libero last year and this year said she feels more comfortable with her role on the team, and senior Margaret Wolford. Another outside hitter is junior Alyssa Montenaro. They will have to make up for the losses of Brittany Hammond (first-team all-OCC-Buckeye) and Morgan Sturgeon (second-team).

Up to four players could play libero, including seniors Sarah Singer, Alyssa Nadolson and Rachel Wickizer and junior Jenn Neumeyer. Singer and Wickizer played libero last year. Junior Kelsey Koke is also on the team as a right-side hitter and setter.

"Everyone's been really dedicated to improving their strength, their speed and their overall volleyball skills," Wolford said. "I think the summer work's really going to help this year because we don't have the height."

The Wolves will play in the OCC-Central with Thomas, Central Crossing, Dublin Coffman, Hilliard Darby, Hilliard Davidson, Upper Arlington and Westland.

Last season ended with a 25-16, 25-23, 25-13 loss to Watterson a Division I district final, the program's first district final appearance.

Thomas opened last Saturday at Marion Harding and played Upper Arlington last Wednesday. The Cardinals play host to Hilliard Davidson today and play at Dublin Coffman on Tuesday.

They are a team that is looking to continue a rebuilding phase that started last season. With a roster full of new faces last year, the Cardinals were 13-11 overall and fourth in the OCC-Central at 3-7 behind Pickerington North (10-0), Westerville Central (7-3) and Marysville (7-3) and ahead of Central Crossing (3-7) and Delaware (0-10).

This year's team again will be young, with two seniors in Erica Blackburn (outside hitter) and Sam Prachar (setter) returning to a roster of 12. Prachar is in her fourth year on varsity and has grown used to the returning hitters including juniors Tayo Abdulrazak (outside hitter), Kyla Anderson (middle hitter) and Ify Okafor (middle hitter). They are part of a large junior class that played together to seasons ago as freshman.

"Last year we only had a few returning to varsity and we had a large group of junior varsity players moving up and we were putting two groups together," said Blackburn, whose team plays host to Davidson today and at Coffman on Tuesday.

"This year most of the girls have played together before so we haven't thrown anyone completely out of it into the mix."

Moving up from the j.v. are juniors Alyssa Brady (defensive specialist), Maggie Eakins (defensive specialists), Brianna Morrissey (defensive specialist), Casey Smiley (outside hitter) and Taylor Wucinich (defensive specialist) and sophomores Monika Lanno (outside hitter) and Abbey Swihart (setter).

The Cardinals should be a balanced team, coach Ed Marsman said. They don't have the one or two dominant players that they've had in the past when they were league champions in 2004 and 2005 and district finalists in 2006, but they don't have to worry about relying on the power of a couple of elite players.

"Were really balanced and that's the nice thing," Marsman said. "We don't really have a weak rotation. We have different people that can do different things well. We don't have to worry about getting stuck in a rotation that's either weak offensively or weak defensively. I don't think we'll be brilliant offensively or defensively, but we're good all the way around."

At a glance

KILBOURNE

Coach: Meladee Hopkins, sixth season

Next match: Today vs. Upper Arlington

Key players: Katie Fleeman, Lilly Haddad, Kelsey Howard, Amy Kiminas and Margaret Wolford

THOMAS

Coach: Ed Marsman, fifth season

Next match: Today vs. Hilliard Davidson

Key players: Tayo Abdulrazak, Kyla Anderson, Erica Blackburn, Ify Okafor and Sam Prachar