Janice West takes over with Eric McKnight as assistant.

Facing challenges and being successful at them is nothing new to the Booneville LadyCat volleyball team. This season brings with it some fresh challenges, perhaps some they are new in facing, but the optimism is brimming nonetheless in the LadyCat camp.

The team will have their third head coach in as many seasons as Candy Goff stepped down after last season. Her replacement is a very familiar face, though, as longtime assistant Janice West takes over the reins. She will be assisted by Eric McKnight.

Another challenge is filling holes left behind. In addition to the loss of nine seniors including All-Star player Haley Carter, two key players who would have returned have opted not to play, and two other would-be returnees plus an incoming sophomore have moved out of the district in the off-season.

However, this makes opportunities for other players to step up and make themselves known, as some girls who have paid their dues on the JV squad now get their chance to shine for the varsity team. The team also got a transfer in that should help immediately, and some sophomores have shown promise and will need to be ready right away.

The team attended Branson camp and showed they can still compete on a high level despite the personnel losses, as they repeated their state tournament win over Pocahontas and also got the better of longtime rival Mena.

The LadyCats open the season next Monday with a home match against Atkins, followed by a trip to Jessieville the next day.

Preview

There needs to be harmony between a setter and a hitter in order for an attack to work well, and all-state setter Maddie Herrera and two-time all-district middle hitter Aleeah Blansett appear to be on the same page on a consistent basis. “(Maddie) knows exactly where Aleeah wants it to be set,” said West.

Herrera set a team record with 779 assists last season, many of them to Blansett, who scored with 183 kills. At 5-1, Herrera is also very adept at getting an errant pass out of the net to keep the LadyCats in the point. She had more assists last season than any other LadyCat had in their entire career.

Blansett is also an effective blocker; in fact she already holds the career record for blocks (199) with a season still to play, with 97 coming last season. At a solid 6 feet, “Blondie” is an intimidating presence at the net. With a big season, she could become the all-time kills leader as well.

The remainder of the hitting corps is largely untested at the varsity level, though they have gotten many reps in JV. Senior Kelsey Mikles is the most experienced, having seen considerable action in her sophomore season. A right-side hitter, Mikles missed a lot of playing time due to injury last year.

West is looking for seniors Emma Ramey and Taylor Miller to break out as well. Ramey can play both middle and outside while Miller is primarily an outside hitter. During the summer, Ramey built her confidence in the middle, while Miller had an outstanding Branson camp and continued that momentum into the later practices.

Two more seniors, Rebecca Walters and Huntar Ritchie, also have toiled in the JV ranks and are now ready to make their contributions. Both play primarily in the middle, with Ritchie getting some work on the outside as well in the preseason.

Keara Ross moved back into the district last semester and is being given a hard look at outside hitter. A junior, Ross is an excellent all-around athlete much like her three older sisters were and that, plus a bit of polish on her hitting, will help the LadyCats greatly.

After having to sit out all of last season, junior Josie O’Bar has returned to the team. Shaking off the rust has taken time, but O’Bar is beginning to round into form and West hopes to give her some playing time at outside hitter.

A player who can go at all three positions can be very valuable to a team and sophomore Brooklyn Zarlingo fits the bill. Though only 5-1, Zarlingo is a tremendous jumper who can unleash some wicked attacks and is a very good passer. If it is needed, she can also set, but West would prefer to keep her in a hitting/digging role.

Raven McCubbin could prove to be an important part of the team; the sophomore will be looked to for serve return and passing primarily though she could play as an outside hitter.

Another backup to Herrera at setter is junior Stevey Harrower. She can also play at outside hitter and has a very dangerous serve. Senior Melissa Humble is also a setter; she injured her knee late last spring but vows that she will be able to play before the end of the campaign.

Three more sophomores complete the 16-girl roster. Abgail Brittian, Emily Nelson and Alivia Yeakley have worked very hard in the off season to improve their abilities and should be ready if needed. Brittian and Nelson are primarily defensive specialists while Yeakley is a middle hitter/blocker.

Booneville has dropped down to Class 3A for this cycle, and their new 3A West conference features a mix of familiar and not-so-familiar foes as they strive for their 10th consecutive state tournament appearance.

Three-time defending state champion Paris is obviously the team to beat; the Lady Eagles are also under a new head coach and may need to adjust. Charleston has begun to establish their own tradition of going to state and will be a dangerous team, as will Elkins who comes off a 19-win season. Mansfield and Waldron hope to regain their mojo after a few down years, while West Fork can never be overlooked and Lincoln usually has some very good athletes.

Booneville will be in the Mena and Paris tournaments this season and also will play their Polk County namesakes in the regular season. The LadyCats also have Lavaca and Hackett on the schedule; these teams could be a threat to win state in the newly created Class 2A.

It will be a very interesting year moving forward; the LadyCats will look to develop the synergy among returning players and newcomers as they continue to drive toward greatness.