It is unlikely that Cardinal Stritch will win the Toledo Area Athletic Conference volleyball title this season.
The Cardinals, under first-year head coach Chad Rutkowski, have already lost twice to defending champion Toledo Christian. Rutkowski, however, said this year’s squad is laying the foundation for success in the future.
“We have a great core of five seniors and nine juniors, which is wonderful as a first-year coach,” he said. “They’ve latched onto our style of coaching and and our style of play and our expectations. They’re not only learning about volleyball, they’re realizing when they’re making errors and they realize how to correct those errors. I don’t have to direct as much because they’re gaining the wherewithal to say, ‘I made the wrong play and I know how to fix it.’ ”
Stritch, which took second in the TAAC last season and tied Toledo Christian for the conference title in 2010, has a junior varsity team with a 16-2 record (9-0 TAAC) and has a freshman squad for the first time in three years.
“We have girls who are playing both jayvee and varsity and freshman and jayvee,” Rutkowski said. “We have three teams where girls are floating between three teams. That’s a very good thing. We wanted to establish a freshman program and build from that class. We want to consistently have that freshman team so we can have 30-35 girls in our program.”
The varsity squad improved to 12-7 and 8-2 in the TAAC with Tuesday night’s 25-7, 25-14, 25-7 win over Danbury on Senior Night.
The Cardinals stretched Toledo Christian, the prohibitive favorite to retain their conference title, to four sets in the teams’ first meeting, at TC. The Eagles beat the Cardinals in three sets in the second meeting, at Stritch.
“We’re equal in skill,” Rutkowski said, “but they’ve been the league powerhouse. Last year they won it outright and they have that mentality and drive and momentum that’s going to be hard to beat. I had hoped we would battle with Toledo Christian, and we did. I don’t think they dropped a set in conference play last year, and they were the favorite going forward.”
Sara Turnersmith, a 5-foot-10 senior outside hitter, leads Cardinal Stritch with 190 kills and has a .295 hitting percentage. Turnersmith, a three-year starter, was the runner-up for TAAC Player of the Year last season.
“Volleyball has been Sara’s life for years,” Rutkowski said. “She is an emotional leader and she leads by example. She definitely makes physical changes when needed, and that’s what makes her so successful. If something goes wrong, she can direct her teammates in a certain way. She’s an extension of the coaching staff, and her volleyball IQ is rare among high school kids.”
The Cardinals’ four other seniors are defensive specialist/libero Abby Mass, 5-8 right side hitter Briyanna Axtell and defensive specialists Christina Pinciotti and Lexi Jagielski. Mass leads the team with 159 digs.
“Abby’s our emotional leader,” Rutkowski said. “She’s really invested in the game. She goes out and does her job, and she’s probably one of the better liberos in our conference.”
Axtell has a team-high 14 blocks and 93 kills. Stritch has 47 blocks as a team.
“Bri has really embraced her skill set,” Rutkowski said. “She has a different approach. She swings off one foot, where most of our girls swing off two feet. She’s really found tremendous success, way beyond anything she expected.”
The coach added that Pinciotti and Jagielski have pulled their weight on defense this season.
“Their defensive wherewithal and relentless pursuit is unbelievable,” Rutkowski said. “They’re some of the fastest kids I’ve seen and they play extrememly hard every time they’re in.”
Junior setter Alexa McCourt “has really improved on her setting and knowledge and IQ of the game,” Rutkowski added. “She has improved her setter-middle hitter connection with our two junior middles, Jennifer Trumbull and Allyson Heyman.”
Heyman was injured in the Cardinals’ first match against Toledo Christian and will have missed 16 matches by the time she returns to action next week.
“That will make a huge difference for us,” Rutkowski said. “She was just hitting her stride as we started the season. She feeds great energy and is very positive on the floor. She’s a very animated individual, and our girls feed off that.”
Maggie Merren, a 5-7 freshman outside hitter, is third on the team in kills, with 75.
The Cardinals’ Division IV sectional draw is Sunday. They will open tournament play at Archbold High School along with Toledo Christian, Fayette, Hilltop, Holgate, Ottawa Hills, Pettisville and Stryker. Two teams will advance to the district tournament.