Worthington Kilbourne High School girls volleyball coach Meladee Hopkins recently joked that her team was playing better because a cold was affecting her voice.
"I can't talk as much, so they have to talk with each other," Hopkins said.
That's what she has wanted all along, and the players seem to be buying in.
The Wolves spent the past two weeks doing their best to finish the regular season with a flourish, recently winning five consecutive matches to enter this week with records of 14-6 overall and 7-5 in the OCC-Cardinal Division. And according to several players, their noise level has been the highest in recent memory.
"(Talking on the court) helps immensely," said junior setter Haley Defibaugh, a three-year starter. "You wouldn't think talking would make us play better, but it helps us and pumps us up when one person is talking, screaming and getting everybody else excited."
Experience isn't an issue for Kilbourne. The Wolves have four senior starters -- outside hitters Maria Calvert and Morgan Lasley, right-side hitter Leah Norman and defensive specialist Maria Whitesel -- as well as Defibaugh and junior middle hitters Sarah Freiheit and Lydia DeWeese. But Hopkins' primary focus was making sure the girls utilized their natural talent and translated it without too much thinking.
"They're best when they stop thinking about what they need to do and just play," she said. "That talent just takes over and they do what they're supposed to do and they win games. I just want us to keep getting better and better. Our theme this year is 'Don't get by, get better.' We've been working on that. There have been times we've played a team weaker than us and we beat them by just getting by. Every game, we have to improve on something -- our defense, our coverage, those types of things. Don't just be OK with getting a win."
Entering this week, Kilbourne's only losses since Sept. 6 had been to Olentangy Liberty 25-19, 18-25, 25-22 on Sept. 15 in the Worthington Kilbourne Invitational, a 25-16, 25-16, 25-10 setback to Westerville Central on Sept. 25 and a 25-23, 25-18, 14-25, 18-25, 17-15 loss to Dublin Jerome on Oct. 4.
"We learned we don't need to play down to (other teams') level," said Defibaugh, who had team-bests of 445 assists and 23 serving aces through 18 matches. "It's never going to be easy to win."
Calvert led the team with 125 kills through 18 matches, followed by DeWeese (118) and Freiheit (84). DeWeese led the Wolves with 46 blocks.
Hopkins hopes her team is able to avoid upsets in what she thinks will be an interesting Division I district tournament. The Wolves, who lost a first-round match last year to Westerville South 25-21, 25-23, 25-18, earned the 10th seed for the tournament and will open at home against Upper Arlington at 6 p.m. Monday, Oct. 15. The winner will play host to Delaware in a second-round match at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 17. That winner will play second-seeded Pickerington North, Franklin Heights, Hilliard Darby or Westerville South in a district semifinal at 6 p.m. Oct. 23 at Big Walnut.
Kilbourne did not play Delaware or UA during the regular season. They went 3-1 in OCC-Central matches against Darby and South, losing to Darby 26-24, 10-25, 25-20, 15-25, 15-7 on Sept. 4 before winning the rematch 25-19, 25-16, 25-9 on Sept. 27.
The Wolves swept South, winning 25-16, 25-14, 25-27, 25-17 on Aug. 28 and 25-17, 22-25, 25-21, 24-26, 15-7 on Sept. 20.
"There's five or six teams -- Pickerington North, Westerville Central, (Dublin) Coffman, Gahanna and then Grove City and Olentangy Liberty -- who are very good. Then there's a huge group where it depends on the day and anybody can beat anybody," Hopkins said. "The rest of us, who knows?"
Last year's early finish has been another motivating factor this season.
"We had our goals get high and we didn't come out with the mentality we needed to win. That's why we lost," senior outside hitter Sara Johnston said. "We are just trying to win these last couple games, get a high seed in the tournament and hopefully go really far."
Thomas to open tourney at home
Thomas earned a home match for the first round of the Division I district tournament and will play host to Dublin Jerome at 6 p.m. Monday, Oct. 15.
The winner will play 12th-seeded Mount Vernon or Olentangy Orange at the home of the higher seed -- Thomas is 13th, Jerome is 24th and Orange is 27th -- at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 17.
The second-round winner will play top-seeded Coffman, Groveport or Westland in a district semifinal at 6 p.m. Oct. 24 at Big Walnut.
Thomas lost to Jerome 25-16, 25-22 on Sept. 1, swept OCC-Central games against Westland (25-16, 25-19, 25-18 on Aug. 30 and 25-22, 25-21, 25-17 on Sept. 25) and was swept in two OCC-Central games against Coffman (25-5, 25-12, 25-17 on Sept. 4 and 25-11, 25-22, 25-20 on Sept. 27). The Cardinals did not play Mount Vernon or Orange during the regular season.