Aug. 25—OTTUMWA — It's been quite awhile since the Ottumwa High School volleyball team has gotten off to a start like this.
The Bulldogs have certainly turned a corner. Mount Pleasant and Davis County found that out first hand on Thursday night as Ottumwa closed out a 5-1 week, sweeping the Panthers 21-10 and 21-14 before surging past the Mustangs scoring 20 of the final 25 points to clinch a 21-15, 21-8 victory closing out a home-opening triangular sweep at Evans Middle School Gymnasium.
"We have talked about everything they've done in the offseason leading up to this," Ottumwa head volleyball coach Ruth Thomas said. "At the end of last season, I told the girls they needed to come into this season two seasons ahead of where they were. Most of them played winter ball. We've got great coaches that are good at working on certain areas of the game. The girls were able to do some small-group lessons within those clusters in their specialities with 85-90 percent of our players involved in that.
"There's was always a focus throughout the summer to fix different problems. I always believe that, in volleyball, there has to be a lot of immediate problem-solving. The girls have to figure out how to react and cover the court when oddball stuff happens. This is an exceptional group of people that really understand where the court is and making sure that, if their teammate has to extend out of their typical area, they are there to cover that space so there isn't an easy spot for someone else to go."
Ottumwa dominated right from the start on Thursday, jumping out to a 12-5 lead in the opening game against Mount Pleasant (0-3) producing 23 kills while connecting on 56 of 60 hits at the net. The Bulldogs were just as effective with their serve, going 37-41 against the Panthers before going 38-42 against the Mustangs.
"It's been fun to see the evolution and shifting. We still have a mile or two to go throughout the season. We're nowhere near where we want to be by the end of the season," Thomas said. "We'd like to grow another couple of seasons worth throughout this season. This is a huge year in terms of enjoying our seniors. We've got five on varsity that we to make this year special."
Violet Hougland, one of those five seniors, made an impression on the Panthers matching junior teammates Miya Fuller and Brylee Jaeger with six kills apiece. Hougland, Jaeger and Fuller have each recorded at least 20 kills in the first six Ottumwa matches.
"We just have a better chemistry than we did," Hougland said. "We work together. We communicate and it comes out better just how we want it to.
"We've done a lot of work and worked really hard to be more coordinated as a team. You have to believe in your teammates for everything to work out. Volleyball is not a one-person sport."
Rylea Hinebaugh led Ottumwa in their first home win of the season, racking up 11 assists and a pair of ace serves against Mount Pleasant. As a team, the Bulldogs racked up 11 combined aces from four different players against the Panthers and Mustangs.
"It's a little surprising that we've gotten off to this fast a start, but we've also put in a lot of work together," Fuller said. "When you put in that hard work, it's easier to play with a higher level of intensity."
Davis County got their season off to a winning start, sweeping Mount Pleasant 21-14 and 21-19 in the second of the three varsity matches on Thursday at Evans Gym. The new-look Mustangs were able to serve up seven aces from five different players while Alistyn Lawson stepped up to record five of Davis County's 11 kills and four of Davis County's seven blocks against the Panthers.
"It's a little bit of trial by fire for us this season. We just need to play with a little more confidence and that's going to come the further we get into our season," Davis County head volleyball coach Brooke Mason said. "To get a win against Mount Pleasant is really good.
"We knew it was going to be tough against Ottumwa. They've got a really good squad this year. They play with a lot of confidence and a super-fast libero. You can't really get a lot down on her."
Her being Camdyn Crouse, who led Ottumwa throughout the night defensively collecting 17 digs in the two matches including seven of Ottumwa's 21 digs in the sweep against Davis County. Besides keeping the Mustangs from scoring points, Crouse put several points on the board for the Bulldogs by delivering five ace serves.
"I leave the hitting to the hitters. It's important for everyone to find the opening spots, but our hitters do really well with that," Crouse said. "I know my job is to serve the ball to the best of my ability and get the ball up for my setters so the hitters could do their job. I really worked hard over the offseason by myself on my serving. I knew that was a weakness of mine last year. I wanted to be a better server this season for my team."
Sydney Utt led Davis County against the Bulldogs with three kills with Lawson added two more blocks. The Mustangs (1-1) head to the West Marshall Tournament on Saturday while Ottumwa is off until hosting Ames on Tuesday, a night that will also include the celebration of Ottumwa High School's 100th birthday.
"I understand they'll be serving cake between the junior varsity and varsity matches. I'm not sure where the cake will be served at, but I'm sure it'll be a long way away from me," Thomas joked.
— Scott Jackson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@CourierScott.