After a successful 2011-2012 campaign, the Benton Lady Panthers volleyball team is gearing up for another run through the 6A South Conference where they took first place last season. With a 17-9 record overall last season and a 10-2 conference mark, the Lady Panthers were one game away from the State Championship, losing in the semifinals to Mountain Home.
“We had pretty good seniors that stepped up,” Benton Coach Brandy Chumley said of last year’s squad. “They were very good offensively and defensively. The seniors led the team. That was probably one of our biggest strengths. They wanted it, they knew how to get it and most of the time they followed through with that.”
What’s impressive about Benton’s semifinal finish was the Lady Panthers did it without their starting setter.
“We had issues with setters,” Chumley said. “We had one move off and had someone we had to move off and had someone who hadn’t set before. She came in and did a good job, but she was just kind of thrown in there.
“That’s hard. Setter is a really, really important spot. It changes the whole aspect of the game [when you don’t have an experienced setter].”
Senior setter Sarah Carter has a year under her belt and though the Lady Panthers lost key players to graduation, Chumley said the team has enough experience, and if her players do what’s expected, Benton should be at the top of the conference again.
“Our seniors now had quite a bit of playing time last year,” she said. “They should lead this group and be comfortable. They know what it’s like to be in stressful situations. I think it’s going to be a fun year if we can get it all together; get our defense down and everybody do what I know they can do.”
The Lady Panthers lost All-State selections Emily Morgan and Kristen Ryan, and All-State Tournament selection Hayley Ferguson. Benton also lost back row player Sierra Prudencio.
“Emily Morgan was one our heavy hitters,” Chumley said. “Hayley Ferguson played all the way around for us. She was just a consistent player and leader.
“We lost some really good hitters, but I think some of our juniors will step in and take care of that, too – fill in what we lost.”
Chumley said the Lady Panthers are trying to avoid this year what their downfall was last season.
“Inconsistency was our biggest problem last year, so we’re trying to get more consistent in every aspect of the game,” Chumley said. “We sat down and made team rules and consequences if we don’t make them - like every time a ball hits the floor without anyone touching it. That should never, ever happen in the game of volleyball; lack of communication for whatever reason.”
The players who will attempt to avoid that lack of communication and will probably see the majority of the playing time are the setter Carter, back-up senior setter Alicia Sandage, senior right side Erin Jackson, senior back row Kelsey Jenkins, senior libero Courtland Kaufholtz, senior middle Alex Williams, junior outside Stacy Cooper, junior right side Jennie Hastings and junior middle Allison Reynolds. Junior Xandra Lock, a move-in from Greenwood, has a leg injury but should see playing time when healthy.
Chumley said she is confident in her team’s offensive capabilities, but the Lady Panthers must improve their defensive play.
“It’s defensively that we really have to work on,” she said. “Going after everything if you think you can get it or not.
“And us all working together. We have some injuries right now so we’re throwing people in and out. The more comfortable you are with your players, the more you can rely on them. That’s something you just have to make adjustments and you just have to rely on that they’re going to do what they’re supposed to do.”
Though Benton won the conference last year, the Lady Panthers may have a little more trouble this season as the Bryant Lady Hornets are the newest conference member. Bryant took second place behind volleyball powerhouse Conway in a very good 7A Central Conference.
“I’m glad they’re in our conference,” Chumley said. “It’s a positive addition. It’s a good team coming in to play. You want that. And it’s always a big rival with us and them. It’s always a good game. They’re our last conference game at their place. I’d much rather have a stronger team come in than not.”
Though a coach of a conference winner and a semifinal team may value a team’s record, Chumley said she is not so much worried about the record, but more of how here team plays.
“If we do well and lose, then I’m OK with that,” she said. “I just want us to play at the level I know we can play. To me, that’s what’s important. We play good teams and if we come off the floor with a loss, if we gave it everything we had, we can all walk off with our heads had.
“Those close games and we come out with a loss, and we didn’t give it everything we had, we let down, then yeah, it’s a little frustrating.”
The Lady Panthers went to camps in Fayetteville, Conway and Rogers over the summer, so Chumley has a good idea of where her team is at.
“The girls are working hard,” she said. “We’ve gone to some camps, we know what we need to work on. They’re busting their butts. Their bodies are really being pushed right now. If they can survive this week and stay in there; if they keep buying into it and keep working hard, it’s going to pay off. I think we’re going to have a pretty good year if everybody does what they’re capable of doing.”