Northwest won 14 straight volleyball matches going into the Class 4 District 8 championship against Eureka last fall.
The Lions put up an incredible fight against the Wildcats before succumbing 31-29 in the second game of the final. Eureka rode the victory all the way to the state championship, beating Suburban Conference rival Lafayette in two sets.
Winners of six straight Suburban Conference titles, including taking first in the Red pool with a mark of 7-0 last year, Northwest finished the campaign with a record of 27-6-2, but lost several key seniors to graduation. For the first time in four years, Lion head coach Deb Fortner won’t be able to depend on her daughter, Megan, or Maja Barringer, Macy Davis, Sophie Kershaw and Reganne Noah.
“As usual, I have high expectations for this year’s team,” Deb Fortner said. “Even though we lost a lot of our offense, I am looking for the newcomers to make a big impact. This year’s team will have a different look and system.”
Defensively, Fortner said she feels like she has the best libero in the area in senior Taylor Hasbrook, who committed 16 errors in 241 serve-receive attempts for a 93.3 percent success rate. Hasbrook will again be the anchor of the defense.
“Her serve-receive and defensive skills are outstanding and she is emerging as a floor leader,” Fortner said. “She will keep us in games.
“Her enthusiasm is encouraging, and she has really started becoming a leader on the floor, helping her teammates whenever she can.”
Setter Jillian Schmoll had a whopping 710 assists, almost 10 per game, as a sophomore last year. Schmoll will be the offensive catalyst again.
“She has also improved during the offseason and continues to be a leader on the floor,” Fortner said. “She is more confident this year and has become an offensive threat.”
Senior middle blocker Erica Schamel led Northwest with 56 blocks last year. Schamel has finished third and fourth in the high jump at the Class 5 state track and field championships the past two springs.
“Erica will control the net for us,” Fortner said. “She is very quick at the net, jumps well, and her offense has really improved during the offseason.”
Alyssa Jones, a junior, will play on the right side and her offensive production should make up for some of the losses to graduation. It’s Jones’ second year on the varsity.
“She has proven to be an offensive threat,” Fortner said. “She can hit from any position and has really stepped up her defensive game as well.”
There are several new players on the varsity this year. Junior Maureen Mathews is expected to provide offense and Fortner said she’s going to be fun to watch the next two seasons.
“She is very vocal in the court and brings lots of energy,” Fortner said.
Sophomores Torie Strange and Lizzy Vermillion join the varsity. Seniors Lainey Bartleson and Sydney Caruthers lend experience and depth to the Lions. Bartleson missed last year because of anemia and she had a bone marrow transplant. Caruthers is a defensive specialist.
“I am proud of (Bartleson) for never giving up and the fact she is on the court seven months after her transplant,” Fortner said. “She has a drive I’ve never seen.”
Junior Libbey Pacanowski adds depth to the offense from the right side. Pacanowski swings and blocks well and Fortner said she will give the team potential coming off the bench. Junior Izzy Clark will help defensively.
“She is a raw player, but gives everything she’s got when she’s on the floor,” Fortner said of Clark. “No ball is going to hit the floor without her making an attempt to play it.”
The Lions began the season with a 25-13, 25-15 win against Hillsboro on Sept. 3. Schmoll had 18 assists and Jones led her team with five kills. Schmoll had 11 assists in Northwest’s 25-17, 25-20 loss to Lafayette on Sept. 5.
The Lancers are in the Yellow pool, the top tier in the system. Marquette (also in the Yellow pool) beat the Lions (1-2) 25-22, 25-15 on Sept. 10.
“It may take us a few games to find our rhythm, but once we do, I believe a lot of good things are going to happen,” Fortner said.
Northwest will compete in a different district for the third year in a row. The Lions were in District 3 in 2017, District 8 last season and this year will host District 2 with Fox, Lindbergh, Mehlville, Oakville, Rockwood Summit and Seckman.