With many returners, Jackson volleyball has high expectations
That's highly regarded Timberwolves seek a second state championship in the past three years
Mark Mulligan / The Herald
Jackson volleyball coach Ashley Allen sets up a drill during a recent practice.
Mark Mulligan / The Herald
Hannah Hicks dives for a ball during a recent practice at Jackson High School. The Timberwolves seek to improve on their fourth-place finish at state last season.
Mark Mulligan / The Herald
Jackson senior Emmy Allen (right), who was The Herald's Player of the Year in 2011, digs during practice at Jackson High School last week.
Two years ago, Ashley Allen's first as their head coach, the Timberwolves won the Class 4A state championship. With most of that team intact, Jackson was one of the favorites to repeat in 2011, but came up short, finishing fourth.
Since last year's fourth-place team had no graduating seniors, the Timberwolves once again are a favorite to bring home the state championship. They also begin the season ranked 17th nationally by prepvolleyball.com.
That ranking might get Jackson some respect, but it won't win matches, Allen said.
"It means nothing," she stressed.
Allen and her players aren't concerned with rankings or what anyone outside their team expects of them. The Timberwolves' are focused on what they can control -- their performance in the gym.
"I think our girls have done a really nice job of recognizing that expectations can only be something you put on yourself and not be something that is speculated about by outsiders," Allen said. "They are focusing a lot this year on what they can control in the gym and rankings. ... (Rankings are) just something that people can do to have a good time and speculate, but it doesn't mean anything until we are on the court and there is a final score."
Stay on task. Be the best you can be. Reach your potential. That is a mantra that the Timberwolves have followed since Allen took the job two years ago.
"We expected to win my first year," Allen said. "No one else expected us to, but we expected to. Again, it just comes down to that's what our expectations were and what we were focused on."
While the Timberwolves pay no heed to others' expectations, it isn't hard to understand why many consider the team a state title favorite. Emmy Allen, The Herald's 2011 Player of the Year, is back for her senior season, as are Herald All-Area first team setter Haley MacDonald and All-Area second team hitter Miah Diirell.
"I think we have a lot of expectations of ourselves, but I think the biggest expectation we have is to be the best we can be," Diirell said. "I feel pressure from everywhere, but we are going to try to focus on what we can do and not what people are saying outside the gym."
Winning state for the second time in three years is Jackson's ultimate goal. But that can't be accomplished without first achieving a host of other benchmarks the team has established, coach Allen said.
"We are kind of taking it one competition at a time and really have broken down our season to say if we want to win state, these are the things we have to do along the way," the coach said.
While the Timberwolves are clear-cut favorites in the Wesco South, they have to be wary of all opponents, coach Allen said.
"It can be dangerous going into any game thinking that you are going to just blow a team out of the water, so that's not our expectation at all," she said. "We are going to go into every game with a game plan and treat every team as a team that is a state title contender, or a district title contender. We don't want to treat them any different than we treat Bellarmine (Prep), Mead or Olympia."
Mead and Olympia also are contenders for the 4A title this season. Bellarmine Prep is the Timberwolves' opponent in their Sept. 11 season opener.
"We wanted (Bellarmine Prep) in our schedule," Allen said. "I think it's a good preseason match for us. Both teams are going to break each other down pretty good I think and really help ourselves to find weaknesses I think within the other teams and within our own teams."
The Timberwolves also travel to Las Vegas for a tournament this season to test their mettle against some of the nation's better talent.
With the season opener fast approaching, the Timberwolves have no time to dwell on the sting of 2011's fourth-place finish at state. It serves only as a reminder that they must work harder, play smarter and stay focused if they are to do better this year.
"I know last year we were definitely disappointed with fourth place," said Emmy Allen, one of Wesco's most dangerous hitters who has an athletic scholarship to play for Washington State University next year.
"My expectation of myself is really just to help my team win state."
Coach Allen, Emmy Allen's older sister, added: "As much as it was a disappointment in state last year taking fourth, that's pretty good -- and we didn't lose anyone."
If nothing else, last year's state experience seasoned the returning players. It left them hungry for more and better prepared to deal with the pressure of other's high expectations and the attention from being nationally ranked.
"I think we know better not to really look at that type of stuff," Emmy Allen said.
What they can't ignore is the target on their backs. Other teams will mark the calendar for their match with the Timberwolves.
"I think what it comes down to is, everyone is going to be fired up to play Jackson High School," coach Allen said. "Our girls are used to that. That's how it's been now for two years. I don't think it's anything for us to worry about, but I definitely think anytime that any team sees Jackson on their schedule they are going to be excited for that."
Winning a state title isn't Jackson's only challenge this season. It might not even be it's biggest challenge.
There's the importance of building a legacy at Jackson that the team can take pride in, a legacy which "sets off a new standard that we have here," coach Allen said.
"These last three years that I've been there, these girls have worked really hard to ingrain a certain level of expectations for everyone across the program," the coach said. "This is how we are going to practice. This is how we are going to work. This is what we are going to do in volleyball, in the gym, outside the school, in school to kind of continue on the success of the program after they leave."
Winning a state championship would be great, Diirell added, but it is not the sole defining factor of successful season. Success goes beyond victories and trophies for the school display case.
"I think success for us at the end of the season is to leave a legacy for our school and our program," Diirell said. "Success is just being proud of what we did at the end of the year."
Aaron Lommers covers prep sports for The Herald. Follow him on twitter @aaronlommers and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.