NEW PALESTINE — Frustratingly, Kelli Gabehart has had to watch practices from afar this preseason, but the New Palestine volleyball coach loves what she’s seen so far from her Dragons.
On maternity leave until Sept. 13, Gabehart has spent the past few weeks reviewing film of her players’ on-court training sessions while relaying her observations to Dragons assistant Jamie Morris, who will occupy the coaching chair until her return.
Obviously, Gabehart is cherishing the time she’s getting to bond with her son, Rhett, who just turned three months old, but she’s also a competitor by nature, and her Dragons are mirroring their coach’s perspective leading up to the 2021 campaign.
“They are tenacious defenders, and they’re very competitive,” said Gabehart, a 2006 New Palestine graduate and 2005 All-State player. “They’re a competitive group. There are a lot of great players in the back row, so there is competition amongst players on our team, and I think that makes your team better.”
The back row is where the scrappy Dragons will draw a majority of their strength early on this fall with two of three returning starters positioned there to steer the team’s revamped look.
One of the key returnees is senior libero Grace Myers, who posted a team-best 449 digs (4.8 per set and 14.5 per match) and 384 receptions in 2020.
Senior Trinity Oertel is another returning anchor in the back row after recording 178 digs, 210 receptions and 22 aces. Add in 5-foot-11, junior middle hitter Reagan Kleiman (145 kills, 26 total blocks) and the stage is set for a reload.
“We are kind of like a new team this year. We graduated almost all of our starters from last year,” Gabehart said. “So this summer and even in the spring, the girls have been working really hard to just get ready, building connections as far as the setters and the hitters, and that’s looking good.”
The Dragons finished the 2020 season with a 23-8 record and were 2-5 in the Hoosier Heritage Conference, which tied them for fifth-place overall. Their final match this past October was a hard-fought, five-set thriller in the Class 4A Cathedral Sectional semifinals against Lawrence North, 3-2.
New Palestine is aiming to improve on those final results this season and possibly contend for its first sectional title since 2017 behind several players set for increased roles.
Senior Jada Hausz, an outside hitter, is projected to be one of many offensive threats after logging 92 kills last season, which ranks her second behind Kleiman, the team’s new de facto offensive threat.
“(Reagan is) looking really strong in the middle. She had a great club season, and she’s more well-rounded as a hitter,” Gabehart said. “She’s got some different shots.”
At setter, the Dragons will replace graduated senior Sarah Adams (798 assists) with junior Isabella Gizzi (108 assists in 2020) and senior transfer Gabby Cruz, who played in Wisconsin previously.
“Gizzi is obviously, from basketball, incredibly athletic, and she’s a lefty, too, so that’s great as far as having the ability to score some points for us offensively,” Gabehart said.
“We’re going to have to rely a lot on our defense. The back row is the most experienced, if we’re comparing back row and front row. We have Grace, who has been a staple back there at libero for us. Oertel is a senior that is very reliable. Mckaylah Flagle, she was injured early in the season last year, so she didn’t get a lot of playing time, but she’s great back there. Honour Mallory is going to see some good time in the back row as well.”
Flagle, a senior, and Mallory, a junior, will be part of the rotation along with 5-10 newcomers Bella Brownfield on the right side and Rachel Burke, a sophomore middle hitter.
Senior Lauren Cornwell and sophomore Nyla Lewis will also be in the mix, while 5-11 freshman Lauren Wilson could be an immediate impact player on the outside.
“She has been a dominant player for her age group, so I’m excited to see how she does against older players, but she’s definitely ran the show her seventh- and eighth-grade years. She’s been the best player on the court in middle school,” Gabehart said. “She’ll have a little bit more of a challenge, I guess, playing juniors and seniors, but I think she can hold her own.”
As a group, Gabehart, a former Indiana State standout, believes her Dragons will battle on a daily basis and potentially turn the program’s three, tug-of-war, five-set losses in 2020 into victories.
“They’re just kind of ferocious and they have a lot of tenacity and they do not want the ball to drop,” Gabehart said. “That’s what we’re going to have to do sometimes, and that’s just outlast our opponents during rallies.
“We’re definitely going to have to play scrappy this year, and that hasn’t always been something that other teams say about us. So, I hope other coaches say, after they’re done playing us, ‘Yeah, they were scrappy.'”
2021 New Palestine Volleyball Season Schedule
Aug. 14: Indianapolis Scecina at New Palestine, 11 a.m.
Aug. 16: New Palestine at Connersville, 5:30 p.m.
Aug. 19: New Palestine at Guerin Catholic, 5:30 p.m.
Aug. 25: New Palestine at Hamilton Heights, 7:30 p.m.
Aug. 26: Whiteland at New Palestine, 6:30 p.m.
Aug. 31: New Palestine at East Central, 6 p.m.
Sept. 1: Warren Central at New Palestine, 7 p.m.
Sept. 2: Greenfield-Central at New Palestine, 6 p.m.
Sept. 8: New Palestine at Indianapolis Lutheran, 6:30 p.m.
Sept. 11: Greenwood Invitational, 9 a.m.
Sept. 14: New Palestine at Delta, 6 p.m.
Sept. 16: New Palestine at Pendleton Heights, 6 p.m.
Sept. 20: Mooresville at New Palestine, 5:30 p.m.
Sept. 21: New Palestine at Centerville, 6 p.m.
Sept. 23: New Castle at New Palestine, 6 p.m.
Sept. 25: New Palestine Invitational, 9 a.m.
Sept. 27: New Palestine at Franklin Central, 5:30 p.m.
Sept. 28: New Palestine at Yorktown, 6 p.m.
Sept. 30: Triton Central at New Palestine, 6:30 p.m.
Oct. 2: Richmond Invitational, 9 a.m.
Oct. 4: New Palestine at Noblesville, 7 p.m.
Oct. 5: New Palestine at Shelbyville, 6 p.m.
Oct. 7: Mt. Vernon at New Palestine, 6 p.m.