rtorres@greenfieldreporter.com

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Prior to the start of the 2017 volleyball season, Eastern Hancock head coach Cory Rainbolt sat down with her team and went over the upcoming schedule. Together, they analyzed and projected potential expectations.

A customary preseason exercise for the Royals, aspirations started off realistic enough, Rainbolt recalled, before they eventually grew out of control.

Like most teams, Ws were being penciled in at every turn, against every opponent, outlining a near perfect season.

Rainbolt knew better, and she immediately reeled her squad back to the present, rather than getting lost in the dreams of the future.

“Our most important thing was we wanted to be competitive,” Rainbolt remarked on the team’s primary goal this season. “It didn’t really matter who we were playing. It wasn’t necessarily our goal to get a win, though that’s obviously everybody’s goal, but we wanted to be competitive. If we were competitive, then we were going to be very successful.”

She was right on target, and the team’s approach led to the Royals’ best volleyball season in five years, earning Rainbolt the honor of Hancock County Volleyball Coach of the Year as voted upon by the area coaches and the Daily Reporter.

In 2017, the Royals finished 21-14, the most wins in a single season since 2012-13 when the Mike Eastes led team went 28-10. According to the school’s current records dating back to 1978-79, this year’s Royals marked only the second group in program history to surpass the 20-win plateau.

The results, Rainbolt says, is a credit to her team’s dedication to the process. Joining the Mid-Eastern Conference was a key motivator, too, in addition to the team’s unselfish nature, the third-year coach emphasized.

The seniors, however, were the catalyst, and the numbers don’t lie.

While junior Jenna Smith led the team in kills with 171, seniors Payton Hicks (108), Madison Stunda (99) and All-MEC Laurie Eells (107) weren’t far behind.

Hicks was first in aces (57) and second in total blocks, but where the four shined the most were the intangibles and as mentors, grooming next year’s leaders of seven juniors.

“I had a phenomenal senior class. The leadership from the four girls that I had was top-notch. They made the season run so smoothly,” Rainbolt said. “They were great on and off the court.”

Hicks was named academic all-state team. Eells was an honorable mention, and Stunda is ranked top 15 in her class, which set significant examples for the younger players to follow.

Rainbolt did her part, though inadvertently, simply by being herself. A former standout at Greenfield-Central and IUPUI, her reputation and past career success as a player are difficult to ignore.

At Greenfield-Central, she accumulated 12 varsity letters, competing in volleyball, softball and basketball. In basketball, Rainbolt became the Cougars’ record-holder for career shot blocks during her era, and she was academic all-state for volleyball in 1994.

In college, Rainbolt earned four letters, was a two-time volleyball MVP and was nominated for the school’s hall of fame. As a player, she reached the 1,000 kills and 1,000 digs marks in her career, graduating as the school’s leader in digs at 1,377 and games played at 503.

Rainbolt spent a year as the junior varsity coach and varsity assistant under Kevin Adams at Eastern Hancock in 2014-15 before he stepped down, thrusting her into the lead position the next season.

“He is a wealth of volleyball knowledge, and I kind of hated to see him go because I was learning so much from him at the time,” Rainbolt said of Adams. “But everyone has to do what they need to do.”

For Rainbolt, the past three seasons have been focused on building the program, climbing from a 10-24 campaign in 2015-16 to a 14-19 record in 2016-17.

This fall, the Royals turned the corner, playing with enjoyment and camaraderie.

“That’s kind of the theme,” Rainbolt said. “All of them said during the season recap, that it was a fun season. They worked together. They worked hard, and the success came with that. (Winning) was a nice icing on the cake to have that happen and actually enjoy doing it together.”

The team went 4-5 in the MEC, a respectable record for the highly-competitive league, which included established East Central Indiana programs such as Shenandoah, Wapahani, Daleville, Cowan and Wes-Del.

The Royals put together a five-match winning streak this season and knocked off Wes-Del, which placed third in the MEC, with a 3-2 final after trailing 2-1 on the road during their match on Aug. 21.

“That was such a fun game. All the girls put that down as one of their fun memories this season,” Rainbolt said. “We took them to five and ended up winning the fifth set, 20-18. Laurie had 21 kills that game. It was a fun atmosphere. The crowd got into it, the girls got into it. Thankfully, we came out on top.”

The strides taken this fall, Rainbolt remarked, could be the starting point for years to come. Still learning as a coach, she admits, competitiveness remains the philosophy on the court, on the sidelines and especially at the youth level.

This fall, the program launched a youth league at Eastern Hancock with 84 girls ranging from first through sixth grade participating. In the past, most players at Eastern Hancock weren’t entering the sport until the junior high level, which has hindered development.

Now, the foundation has been set.

“This was a great season for the girls to understand that yes, we can compete. We have lots of work still to do, but we can compete when we set our minds to it and put in the work and time,” Rainbolt said. “I’m super excited for the years to come.”

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Rich Torres is sports editor at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. He can be reached at rtorres@greenfieldreporter.com or 317-477-3227.