MILL CREEK — The Jackson volleyball team has been the toast of the Wesco 4A South for the past four seasons, winning every league championship in that span and placing at the state tournament each time, highlighted by a state championship in 2010.
The Timberwolves haven’t even lost a league match since their state championship season.
That dominance will be tested this season after the Timberwolves graduated several key pieces to last year’s third place team at state, including back-to-back all-area player of the year award winner Emmy Allen, who is playing at Washington State University. Also gone is second-team all-area outside hitter Miah Diirell and first-team all-area setter Haley MacDonald.
On top of the dominant group of seniors who graduated in 2012, the Timberwolves also lost the head coach who had led them for the past three seasons, Emmy’s sister Ashley Allen, who resigned her position to take an assistant coaching job at Nicholls State University in Louisiana.
But don’t feel too sorry for the perennial power, they do return all-area first-teamer Payton Locknane as well as senior middle blocker Hannah Hicks, who came on last season and contributed to the team’s state tournament run.
The Timberwolves also have a new coach, Mindy Staudinger, who replaces Allen after coaching the two seasons at Marysville Getchell.
“I’m really excited about it,” Staudinger said. “I’ve been around the game for quite a while and my experience at Getchell was quite different in starting a program from scratch. Coming into a program like Jackson is really exciting to me. These kids are driven and they have a lot of experience playing club which is a bonus, but they just have this commitment about them and their work ethic and everything that is really exciting to be around.”
With a new roster and a new coach also comes another change — a reformatted league. Instead of being split into a North and a South division as the Wesco 4A had been in the past, the leagues will be combined into one large division with the top eight teams making the postseason and only one league champion. Just another obstacle the Timberwolves will face in pursuit of a fifth straight league title.
The team that might have the best chance of unseeding Jackson at the top is Snohomish. The Panthers haven’t made it to state in two seasons, but with one of the best hitters in the state, senior Lanesha Reagan (see above), the Panthers are poised to give the rest of the conference all it can handle.
Two years ago injuries derailed the Panthers run to the state tournament and last year Tarin said chemistry issues played a role in the team’s elimination at districts.
He expects different results this season.
“This year, we are deeper than we have ever been,” Tarin said. “We are ready. We are stronger mentally. We put in a conditioning program that is making the girls mentally tough and physically tough, and they’re wanting it.”
If not Snohomish, Edmonds-Woodway could be the team to rise to the top. The Warriors have been overshadowed by Jackson and even Kamiak in recent years in the south division, but unlike Jackson, the Warriors return nearly everyone from last season.
An experienced group of veterans should make Edmonds-Woodway one of the favorites this season.
“They know each other very well on and off the court which I think will be a strength for us and help us out this season,” Warriors head coach Nicole Bordeaux said.
Bordeaux doesn’t expect the Warriors to step into a role of dominance like the Timberwolves have the past several seasons, but she does expect her team will compete with the best teams in the conference.
“I just think we’ve been that team that everyone just kind of passes by the last couple of years,” Bordeaux said. “I do think we are going to be a lot stronger and I think teams will be surprised by our level of play this year.”
The same could be said for Kamiak, Lake Stevens and Monroe, all teams that should also be competitive in league play.
And of course, don’t sleep on Jackson.
“Jackson had a great team and I’m sure they will be great again,” Bordeaux said. “They do have some great players coming back.”
The coach might be different, but Staudinger said she doesn’t expect much to change.
“Ashley and I aren’t the same person, obviously,” Staudinger said. “We come from the same stock and the same background and a lot of our philosophies carry over. The transition for this team is very minimal. The traditions that have been set we plan on continuing and keep moving forward not only looking for individual wins each season, but building a program that has longevity year after year. I can see that happening.”
However, the previous four Timberwolves teams have raised the bar, placing eighth, first, fourth and third at state in respective seasons.
“I guess I would be foolish to say I don’t feel a little bit (of pressure),” Staudinger said. “The expectations are pretty high. I feel based on our practices and how we have prepared that we are going to do very well in the conference. I expect us to be at the very top of it.”
The difference is, other teams now realistically have that same expectation.
“I think other teams might agree that you went into playing Jackson in the past already defeated,” Bordeaux said. “You don’t come across that many teams in the state that have that many successful, great players. Now, it’s an open opportunity. You don’t go into the game knowing anything, you just go to play, which is as a coach what you would hope for every game. Every team has a fair chance mentally before they get there.”
Aaron Lommers covers prep sports for The Herald. Follow him on twitter @aaronlommers and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.