CHARLOTTESVILLE — The difference between 10 wins and 15 wins boiled down to one for the Eastern Hancock volleyball team last season.
On five different occasions, head coach Cory Rainbolt’s Royals were one game away from probable victory, only to come up short en route to a 10-19 season record.
Strong finishes in 2020 were a key frustration for the youthful and talented Royals, who lost four seniors due to graduation over the course of the off-season.
However, it could prove motivating for the, now older and much more focused, group, which returns its entire starting lineup that reached the Class 2A Sectional 41 semifinals last October.
With four juniors on the roster last fall, the Royals will utilize their program’s developed leadership to pursue a .500 or better record in 2021, and the player set to lead the charge will be all-around senior Lili Hunt and her trio of classmates.
“We have our whole starting lineup returning this year, led by Lili Hunt who has really worked hard over the summer on ball placement and court awareness,” said Rainbolt, who is entering her seventh season at the helm. “She is so versatile and will lead the team all six rotations.”
As a junior, Hunt earned 2020 All-Hancock County and All-Mid-Eastern Conference recognition and for good reason.
A team leader in nearly every key statistical category, Hunt, a 6-foot, middle hitter, is the de facto driving force for Eastern Hancock and will be relied upon to repeat the trend in 2021.
Last season, Hunt tallied 300 kills, which ranked her first on the team at 3.0 per set with a 35.1 kill percentage. Her 35 aces put her at third overall among her teammates just behind senior outside/middle hitter Sydni Bednarksi (38) and junior outside/setter Sydney Hayes (37).
Hunt elevated at the net to amass 32 total blocks to pace the Royals, and she was second in digs at 279 behind fellow returnee Megan Retherford (330), a senior opposite hitter.
Hunt averaged 2.8 digs per set and 9.6 per match and showed her vast skill-set with 269 assists (2.7 per set) for second best on the roster. Hayes was first at 290.
“Sydney Hayes will have our hands this year and will do some hitting for us, too,” Rainbolt said. “We have a lot of versatility with this group, including Sydni Bednarski and Alivia Coffin-Gutierrez who can run all positions across the front row.”
Coffin-Gutierrez, a junior, provided 74 kills, 27 total blocks, 79 digs and 30 assists as a middle/outside hitter in 2020.
Her kills total was fourth-best on the team with the top-three attackers all back for another run at a winning record. Bednarski (103) and Retherford (87) were two of the Royals’ top-three kills leaders last fall.
Eastern Hancock’s last plus-500 campaign unfolded in 2017-18 when the Royals went 21-14. In Rainbolt’s six previous seasons, the Royals have never fallen below 10 wins and the program has surpassed 14 or more three times since 2012-13.
Varsity newcomer Ruby White, who stands 6-1, will inject some necessary height to the Royals’ front row this season, while Ella Shaw will provide additional support as an outside hitting option.
Retherford is projected to be a catalyst for the Royals’ in both passing and digging with 35 assists a year ago. Senior Bre Taulbee, a senior libero, will share the responsibilities with Retherford after recording 213 digs and 220 serve receptions as a junior.
Junior Emma Bolding will be key in supplying strength at the net and with her serve after registering 56 kills, 19 aces, 13 total blocks and 109 digs in 2020.
The Royals finished 3-6 in the MEC last year, which placed them seventh in the highly-competitive league that consists of defending champion Cowan, Wapahani and rival Shenandoah, who the Royals eliminated at sectional, 3-2.
Eastern Hancock’s postseason win over the Raiders in the opening round avenged its 3-0 loss during the regular season, showcasing the team’s ability to persevere and overcome setbacks.
The host Royals lost their final match, 3-1, to eventual sectional champion Union County.
“The MEC is a tough volleyball conference,” Rainbolt said. “Our seventh-place finish last year is not an option this year. Our goal is top five in the MEC. Losing to sectional champion Union (County) last year is giving us motivation to work hard this off-season. I am super proud of the extra effort our girls have put in so far.”
Work ethic and maturity will play a vital role in the final results for the Royals, who last a sectional championship in 2012 for their first since 1984.
“Our four seniors have shown a lot of leadership and direction on where they want to be at the end of the season,” Rainbolt said. “Hopefully, their dedication and commitment has shown the younger players what it takes to have passion for the game. Now, we have to go out and prove all the work was worth it.”
The Royals open the season at the Morristown Invitational on Aug. 14 with their first home match set for Aug. 24 against Sectional 41 runner-up Centerville.
2021 Eastern Hancock Volleyball Season Schedule
Aug. 14: Morristown Invitational, 9 a.m.
Aug. 16: Eastern Hancock at North Decatur, 5:30 p.m.
Aug. 19: Eastern Hancock at Cambridge City Lincoln, 6 p.m.
Aug. 21: Shenandoah Invitational, 9 a.m.
Aug. 23: Eastern Hancock at Wes Del, 6 p.m.
Aug. 24: Centerville at Eastern Hancock, 6 p.m.
Aug. 26: Greenfield-Central at Eastern Hancock, 6 p.m.
Aug. 28: Indiana Deaf Invitational, 11:15 a.m.
Aug. 31: Eastern Hancock at Shenandoah, 6 p.m.
Sept. 2: Blue River Valley at Eastern Hancock, 6 p.m.
Sept. 7: Union at Eastern Hancock, 6 p.m.
Sept. 8: Eastern Hancock at Wapahani, 6 p.m.
Sept. 13: Randolph Southern at Eastern Hancock, 6 p.m.
Sept. 16: Southwestern at Eastern Hancock, 6 p.m.
Sept. 20: Eastern Hancock at Cowan, 6 p.m.
Sept. 22: Tri at Eastern Hancock, 6 p.m.
Sept. 23: Eastern Hancock at Monroe Central, 6 p.m.
Sept. 25: Eastern Hancock Invitational, 9 a.m.