The Newark High School girls volleyball team has several holes to fill in its lineup.

The Newark High School girls volleyball team has several holes to fill in its lineup.

Kelsey Gray and Heather Hammonds, who both played the middle, were among last year's graduates after the Wildcats finished 18-7 overall while advancing to a Division I district final for the third time in five seasons.

Gray, who was co-Player of the Year in the OCC-Ohio Division and made honorable-mention all-state, signed to play at Tennessee Tech. Hammonds, who made honorable-mention all-league, is playing at Cincinnati Christian. Newark also lost three others to graduation, including second-team all-league setter Olivia Bybee.

"We've got some work to do, no question," coach Ruth Sunkle said. "But the girls we have can all play multiple positions offensively and defensively, and they're hungry to learn."

The Wildcats open the season and OCC-Ohio schedule Tuesday against visiting Gahanna. Junior setter McKenzie Wheeler is the team's most experienced player and was paired with Bybee in the 6-2 formation last year.

The junior class is the strength of the team and includes Jaynee Hiegel (defensive specialist), Emily Prescott (right-side hitter), Stefanie Scott (middle hitter) and Alexa Hunt (outside hitter). Taylor Holland and Courtney Barnhart share time playing opposite Scott in the middle. Another junior, Tanadra Spivey, will miss the season with a knee injury, Sunkle said.

The seniors are Kassey Tingler, who missed last season due to injury, and Joanna Villinger. Both will play several spots and sophomore Allie Kreager is the new libero.

The most polished newcomer is 6-foot freshman Annie Thomasson, who will start at one of the outside hitter positions. Her sister, Erin, now plays at Ashland and was ThisWeek's Player of the Year as a junior in 2006, while her mother, Jane, is Newark's freshman coach.

"She's even bigger than Erin and has a great reach," said Sunkle, whose team finished third (8-6) last year in the OCC-Ohio behind Pickerington North (14-0) and Gahanna (12-2). "She's really going to help us."

The Wildcats lost to top-seeded Dublin Coffman in last year's district final, with Marysville and Olentangy winning the other Division I district titles. Olmsted Falls was the state champion.

Newark finally ended its postseason frustrations against Hilliard Davidson, however. The Wildcats prevailed in the second round after Davidson eliminated Newark several times this decade, most recently in a 2007 district semifinal and '06 district final.

The Wildcats also defeated eventual Division IV district-champion Fisher Catholic in the title match at the Newark Invitational.

"It's a new year now," Sunkle said. "We've got our hands full, but I think we're going to be OK."