Leah Ferguson admits she was a little surprised.
The Eastern Hancock Royals had just put together their best run of the 2015 volleyball season, winning three straight matches and reaching the Class 2A sectional finals last October.
They peaked at the right time and beat rival Knightstown 3-2 in a back-and-forth sectional semifinal before finishing sectional runner-up to Shenandoah.
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The late-season hot streak pushed their win total to 10 when double-digits seem unattainable, except to Ferguson and her teammates. They believed, but even afterwards, there were some that called it “lucky,” which didn’t settle well with Ferguson, she said.
“We’re definitely excited about this season,” the 5-foot-8 senior outside hitter said. “In the past, the volleyball program, we haven’t had a spectacular year for a long time, and for us as a team, after getting all the way to the sectional championship, we have a higher expectation.
“I think this is the year we prove everyone wrong and come out and have a great season.”
Ferguson’s eagerness stems directly from second-year head coach Cory Rainbolt. A 12-time varsity letter winner at Greenfield-Central and later a two-time volleyball MVP at IUPUI, Rainbolt came into her first season at Eastern Hancock with a message.
“I try to bring the love for the game. Passion for something and enjoying what you are doing and having fun at it is important,” Rainbolt said. “There’s a big difference from going out there everyday and not enjoying it and just being out there because you’re there.”
Rainbolt’s players showed their dedication last year as the Royals grinded through a seven- and a six-match losing stretch at two different points.
Her coaching philosophy motivated the team this offseason, Ferguson said, to take the first step towards Rainbolt’s aspiration for the program’s future.
“This summer, a majority of the team put in a lot of effort, which I was really proud of,” Ferguson said. “A lot of our girls played club, which is really helpful, and we’ve had workouts three times a week for two or three hours over the summer and other training and conditioning.”
Rainbolt firmly believes to be a better team, the players need to want to be on the court more than three months out of the year, which many of her six returning starters decided to pursue.
Laurie Eells, a returning junior setter, maximized her offseason by playing full-time at The Academy Volleyball Club in Indianapolis. Six more Royals trained with the Lady Royals Volleyball Club and competed in five tournaments and practiced during the week.
“The good thing is we had a great team camp. I had 18 girls there. It was a great three days in July,” Rainbolt said. “The Academy came in and hosted skills works and we had some fun team-building activities afterwards. We even camped in the 90-plus degree heat. The girls really bonded.”
There’s still work to do, however, Rainbolt stressed. Her modest goal for the 2016 season is around 15 wins and to return to the sectional title match.
First, she wants her team to keep learning, especially when and how to maximize opportunities and minimize mistakes.
“In volleyball, (errors) make or break you, and unfortunately, they broke us last year,” Rainbolt said. “We also had a problem hitting the floor last year, so we really worked on that a lot, but the other thing we really worked on is controlling the ball.
“If we control the ball better than the other team, we will win points.”
Ferguson is projected to be the recipient of many of those scoring chances after leading the team with 182 kills in 2015. Named All-Mid-Hoosier Conference, Ferguson contributed 78 digs, 25 total blocks and 18 aces.
Senior middle hitter Reagan Hunt and senior opposite right hitter Caitlin Richmond should also benefit this year, if “things fall into place,” Rainbolt said.
Eells’ budding talents, which resulted in 321 assists a year ago, could increase as a result, which bodes well for the team’s already solid chemistry.
“She is one of the best setters I’ve worked with. I love hitting off of her. It’s our third year being together, so it’s instinctive,” Ferguson remarked. “In a game, I can say, ‘yeah, yeah,’ and she knows what it means and what I’m thinking.”
Junior defensive specialists Madison Stunda and Haley Dickison, who was injured last year, will be tasked along with sophomore libero Haley Best to help the Royals’ back row attack.
Best had a team-best 272 digs in her first year, while Stunda logged 113. Ferguson and Eells combined for 157.
Junior Payton Hicks will play a role on the front row after netting 47 total blocks and 40 kills. Newcomer sophomores Faithe Webster, Jenna Smith and Eriel Truitt provided much needed depth in addition to senior Kayli Lewman.
Independent this season, with Eastern Hancock leaving the Mid-Hoosier Conference, the Royals are focused on winning, but more importantly, getting back to where they finished, Ferguson said.
To get there, though, the team needs to want it.
“We’ve never had that chip on our shoulder before in volleyball. We’ve had it forever in basketball, and I personally know what it feels like,” Ferguson said. “I think it could be good for us this year to have it.
“I say we’re going for .500; that’s my goal.”
Coach: Cory Rainbolt (second year)
2015 recap: Eastern Hancock (10-24) hit its stride late in head coach Cory Rainbolt’s first season at the helm. With only seven wins through 30 matches, the Royals end the regular-season with a 2-1 win against Milan and proceeded to put together a three-match winning streak to reach the Class 2A sectional finals. Eastern Hancock blanked Indianapolis Howe 3-0 in the sectional opener and battled to a 3-2 semifinals win against rival Knightstown. They lost to Shenandoah in the finals 3-0.
Leading the way: Leah Ferguson was named All-Mid-Hoosier Conference last season in the final year of Eastern Hancock’s affiliation with the league. The senior outside hitter led the Royals with 182 kills while adding 18 aces, 25 total blocks, 78 digs and 213 serve receptions.
Key returners: Leah Ferguson (12), Reagan Hunt (12), Laurie Eells (11), Payton Hicks (11), Caitlin Richmond (12), Haley Best (10).
First Serve: Eastern Hancock opened the year at home against North Decatur on Monday and Morristown on Tuesday.