By Dana Harding (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Few programs have achieved the run of success posted by Miller volleyball in recent years, with at least 25 wins during each season dating back to 2016.
What’s more, the Cardinals capped a magical 34-3-1 season with a Class 1 state championship during the school’s second-straight Final Four appearance.
After getting quite familiar with host city Cape Girardeau over the past couple seasons, Miller head coach Tamara Landers, entering her 18th season at the Cardinals helm, realizes what it takes to finally capture the elusive title.
“It is every high school team’s dream to win a state championship,” Landers said. “On our way to accomplishing this goal we learned that it takes a whole team to make it happen.”
It also never hurts to have a ridiculously talented quartet of all-state seniors on the roster.
While Alli Mitchell (2019-2021), Kaylee Helton (2020-2021), Claudia Hadlock (2020-2021) and Ashten Kingsley (2021) depart the program as graduates, their legacies will certainly have a lasting impact on the program for years to come.
Mitchell, who finished the season in third place overall on the Missouri career assist leaderboard (3,085) will continue her volleyball career at Cottey College this season.
When a team graduates its stat leaders in assists, kills, service reception and blocks, there’s work to be done in the offseason, and Landers is ready for the challenge.
“It will definitely be hard to replace our four all-state seniors,” Landers said. “These guys were great leaders and made everyone around them more competitive.”
A senior quintet of talented athletes are seen to step into primary roles for the Cardinals this season in Haylie Schnake, Emberlynn Kingsley, Addison Stockton, Lillie Ricketts and Alyssa Hill.
Schnake, a versatile six-rotation player, finished the season with 255 kills, 42 aces, 18 blocks and 186 digs. She received all-district and all-conference honors as a junior.
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“Haylie has been No. 2 on the team in kills for the last two seasons. She is versatile and pretty quick at the net.”
Kingsley, a 6-foot-2 middle blocker, posted 251 kills and 33 blocks in 2021. She was an all-district and all-conference selection last season.
“Emmy was all conference and all district last year,” Landers said. “For the last two seasons she has been opposite her sister. This year she will take on the M1 role. We will look to Emmy to be a big force at the net both on the offensive and defensive sides.”
Stockton, an all-district and all-conference libero, recorded 442 digs and 8 aces last season.
“Addi will be the backbone of our defense,” Landers said. “We will look to here for verbal leadership. She is an extremely hard worker and is not afraid to sacrifice her body for the game.”
After posting 22 aces, 33 digs and 15 assists as a junior, Ricketts moves into the primary setter role for the Cardinals this season.
“Lillie’s role this year will be to take over as the leader of our offense,” Landers said. “Last season she really developed a killer serve and she will only get better as this season progresses.”
Hill, previously used as a defensive specialist, also figures to also step into a more prominent role for the Cardinals. She finished the season with 82 digs and 11 aces last season.
“Alyssa did a great job in the right back defensive spot last year,” Landers said. “We will look to her to make an impact in all six rotations this season.”
With open spots in the Miller lineup, opportunities abound for varsity newcomers to make an immediate impact in freshman outside hitter Ashlyn Helton and senior outside hitter Hailey Mart.
“Ash (little sister to Kaylee) is very athletic and this will be to her advantage as she steps into varsity ball,” Landers said. “She’s watched a lot of volleyball so her knowledge will also help her be successful this year.
“Hailey is athletic and strong. We will look to her to help us at the net this season.”
It’s only natural for expectations, particularly those from smaller schools, to take significant steps back following the loss of four all-state athletes.
With the returning talent and experience available to Landers heading into the season, Miller doesn’t exactly fit this mold.
“Obviously coming off a state championship season makes everyone hungry for another one,” Landers said. “Our expectations have always been high, and I think it is totally possible to make it far in the postseason again this year. These seniors have made it to the Cape two years in a row … they would sure love to make it three!”
Miller’s ability to realize another postseason run will primarily depend on how quickly Ricketts adjusts to her new role as quarterback for the Cardinal attack.
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“Our offensive versatility and tempo will allow us to put pressure on opposing teams,” Landers said. “Lillie Ricketts is the new face to the setting position but is capable of providing the consistency our team needs to be successful.”
Up front, Miller is still blessed with a pair of experienced hitters able to put extreme pressure on opposing defenses.
“Our offensive threat will be led by seniors Haylie Schnake and Emmy Kingsley,” Landers said. “They were our No. 2 and No. 3 kill leaders from our state championship team. These two have the capability of doing great things, and I feel they are both up to the task.”
On defense, Landers believes the Cardinals are also well-positioned to compete with an experienced Stockton stepping into a major leadership role on the back row.
“We have always prided ourselves on being a good defensive team and this year will be no different,” Landers said. “With Addi as our libero, she has gained her voice and will be able to lead our team.”
The 2021 Class 1 state champions open the season Aug. 27 in the Verona Tournament.