RUSSIA — In the past two seasons the Russia Raiders volleyball team has reached the Division IV regional tournament twice and won the always-arduous Shelby County Athletic League once.
There’s no denying the Raiders have produced good teams. Now they’re out to show the same about the program.
“The big thing we’re trying to get in the girls’ mind is … we’re at the level of a program like Jackson Center or a Fort Loramie,” Russia fourth-year coach Aaron Watkins said. “That’s the mentality we need to have. Getting to regional should be our expectation every year. I don’t care if we’re playing six freshmen or six seniors. This is what we want to do.”
Should the Raiders book an unprecedented third straight trip to the regional tournament, then they’ll have the regular season to thank. Seven of Russia’s first nine opponents were state ranked in the final poll in 2018. That’s a tough challenge for any team, let alone one returning four starters.
Senior middle hitter Jessica York (102 kills, 40 blocks, 40 digs) and junior outside hitter Ashley Scott (287 kills, 35 blocks, 209 digs, 402 serve receptions and 66 aces) return as the go-to hitters. Junior Kendall Monnin (394 digs, 472 serve receptions, 33 aces) moves into the libero position. Sophomore Ava Daniel (108 digs, 35 aces) moves into the front row after playing back last season.
Senior defensive specialist Alana Gariety will see significant varsity time as will four freshmen: setter Miah Monnin, middle hitter Kate Sherman, outside hitter CeCe Borchers and defensive specialist Simone Puthoff.
“We knew last year having four really good seniors that played a lot of rotations, we knew this was going to be – I don’t want to say a rebuilding year because I don’t want to have a rebuilding year,” Watkins said. “We have a really good core and group of girls. I’m pretty pleased with where we’re at.”
The team motto this season is #passingexpectations. It’s a reminder that many volleyball fans outside of Russia anticipate a down season for the defending SCAL champs, who shared the title with Jackson Center.
“I think a lot of people are going to have lower expectations for us and maybe have a rebuilding year,” Watkins said. “I think where people expect us to be, we want to go past that.
“I think we’ll be in the top half of the county. I’m not sure we’ll be able to compete for a title having four freshmen. That’s asking a lot. But I do think we can beat anyone on any given night. I also think we can lose to about anyone at any given night. That’s a big range there.”
The range of teams expected to compete for the SCAL title is wide, too. Fort Loramie gets the slight nod as the favorite, while Anna, Fairlawn, Jackson Center and Russia are top challengers. And, as Watkins suggests, don’t overlook the Raiders despite that tough start to the season that includes state-ranked teams in New Bremen, Jackson Center, Versailles, Fort Loramie, St. Henry and Fort Recovery. Anna and Covington are also in the first half of the season.
Watkins has conditioned his team to look at that brutal start as learning lesson.
“I’d like to think we’re going to approach it that way. These teams are really good and we’re going to take our lumps, but those lessons will pay off,” Watkins said. “That’s how we’ll go about it. We’re going to play the best teams in the state and we’re going to learn what we need to work on and improve on that.
“Russia volleyball has never made three straight regional appearances. I think that should be a goal of ours. I think that’s definitely doable. That’s the goal for the season.”