MOUNT VERNON — As the Mount Vernon High School boys volleyball team has spent the last week preparing for their third state tournament appearance, which starts with today’s match against Cincinnati Elder, the Yellow Jackets have had some fun.
All week in practice, the team has worked hard preparing for whatever the defending state champion Panthers (18-6) throw at them. They have also had a good time doing it however. It is that sense of camaraderie that has helped get the team to where it is today.
The Yellow Jackets (21-4) are a team in the true sense of the word. They laugh together, they lose together and they win together.
“This team is a lot of fun,” said Mount Vernon junior Trey Williams. “We are always joking around with each other. Even on the court we are having fun, but when it comes down to it, we get the job done. We work well as a team. It takes all 15 guys on the team and our quality coaches to make this team win. It is not just the six guys playing on the court. It takes everybody on the bench behind them. We are a team; we play like one; we are a family.”
“This has been a lot of fun,” said sophomore Caleb Sinzinger. “Last year, I came in not really sure about myself, but these guys took me in and made me feel a part of the team.”
One crucial part of this team has been the play of its reserves. Like any squad, only a certain number of players can start, which means there are several players vying for playing time. Coach Alan Cassell has walked that fine line successfully, and in turn, the Jackets have reaped the rewards.
“We’ve got a pretty good bench,” said first-year varsity player Ben Miglin. “If somebody is struggling, we can take them out and it is not going to hurt our team. Obviously, with some players, there is a little more skill, but we can give them a break until they can come back in later.
“I think this makes us a lot tougher team because a lot of public schools don’t have a lot of numbers like the private schools do. We are right there with them, which makes the private schools work the whole time.”
It is Cassell’s system of rotating players that has helped Mount Vernon stay competitive. Often, as will be the case today, the Jackets are not as big or as fast as the competition. It is the rotation, however, that has made the difference.
“Rotating keeps us all fresh,” Williams said. “We practice it every day. We try to make sure everybody knows what to do and where they are at. I think it makes us a better team. It keeps us fresh on the bench and it keeps us fresh on the court. When one person gets tired, we can rotate somebody else in, and they know what they are doing.”
Each player has his own role, and it is their acceptance of those roles that has made this trip possible.
“I just go out there to have fun and do my best,” said junior Zach Roden. “The coaches look to me to get points when I’m in there, so that’s what I try to do. ... It takes a lot of thought to keep up with the games because you have to pay attention the whole time. You have to know what the score is, and what the situation is. You can’t just walk in without knowing.
“A lot of times I’m watching the game, hoping we will win, and the next thing coach is calling on me.”
While only six players can be on the court at once, that doesn’t mean the other players can check out. They must be ready when called upon, and that means keeping their heads in the games even when their bodies aren’t.
“You’re always watching; you’ve got to pay attention to what everybody is going,” said Williams. “We are always cheering. When I come off the court, I think about what I did wrong, what I did right and what I need to do to fix it. I play the middle, so I don’t have to pass. I just have to focus on hitting, but I still watch everything that is going on. Even the guys that don’t play all the time, they are always yelling out things they see.”
“I think it helps when we are verbally supportive, and it keeps us in the game,” said Sinzinger.
For the Jackets, today’s match against Elder wasn’t their ultimate goal this season. With only two seniors, they expected this be a building year because of their large junior class. That’s not to say they didn’t want to reach the state tournament; it just wasn’t necessarily an expectation.
“We thought this was a possibility because the last few years, we’ve been building a good program,” said Roden. “We’ve been getting better and better. We’ve all worked hard to get here, which feels pretty good. We just didn’t know if we would get here this year.”
With eight juniors and two sophomores on the roster, this trip could provide valuable experience for next year. The Jackets aren’t quite ready to concede this one, however.
“We are still focusing on next year; we have five juniors and a couple of sophomores playing a lot of minutes right now,” said Williams. “This is valuable experience for those of us who are going to be here next year, but right now, we are playing hard and are working as a team. We are looking ahead, but not too far ahead. We have an opportunity here and now, and we are looking at how far we can go because of that. I think we could win this thing now, and not worry about next year.”
Facing Elder will be a difficult challenge. Unlike most of the other teams from the Cincinnati area, the Jackets have not seen any of Elder’s matches this season and they know relatively little about the Panthers. That’s not dampening their enthusiasm, however.
“We haven’t really gotten to see what Elder can do,” Williams said. “We haven’t seen any of their games. They’ve been in a few contests and tournament where we’ve been, but we haven’t had the chance to watch them. That is a disadvantage, but they don’t know how we play either. They haven’t seen our game, which is an advantage for us. Ultimately, it is just about who plays a better match.”
“I think it is good and bad,” said Miglin. “We have played St. X this season and we knew we could compete with them, but with Elder, it is going to be a fresh game. No one really knows anything about each other. ... I think we have a good chance at winning. We just have to play our game and keep our heads in it.”
The team would like to encourage its fans to make the drive to Walsh Jesuit High School, which is located in Cuyahoga Falls, for today’s match. The two teams square off at 2 p.m. The winner will advance to play either Centerville or Cleveland St. Ignatius on Sunday at noon, with the state championship scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on Sunday.