By Dana Harding (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
2021 was a banner year for Forsyth volleyball.
After posting a third-straight 20-win season under head coach Mallory Richardson, the 28-5-1 Panthers captured the program’s second-ever district title.
“In 2021 we set the expectation as a team to play our game in every set, regardless of who the opponent was,” Richardson said. “We expected to compete strongly in and win districts, and we were able to take the district title for the first time in over 20 years.”
With Richardson stepping down, a new face will prepare Forsyth for its 2022 campaign in first-year head coach Melissa Ellison.
Ellison’s first order of business will be replacing a quartet of talented graduates in Emmalea Cook, Landry Stuart, Oletha Rich and Emma Barrickman.
“Our program graduated four seniors last year,” Ellison said. “Each of them played vital roles on the court and their defense will be extremely missed.”
A Class 3 all-state selection, Cook will continue her athletic career at William Woods University this season.
“The senior class as a whole last year brought a lot of experience,” Ellison said. “They were everyone’s favorite teammates because of their work ethic and great attitudes.”
Despite its graduation losses, Forsyth returns plenty of firepower this season with a quintet of returning players set to lead the attack, including junior outside hitter Savannah Koen.
Koen received all-district and all-conference awards last season, leading the team in both kills (406) and aces (46).
“Teams will know real quick who Savannah is,” Ellison said. “She has an amazing vertical and can pound the ball. She is definitely our go-to hitter. She can run several hitting options and her attacks are hard to defend.”
Senior libero Kloe Hendrickson (500 digs, 36 aces) also returns after leading the team in digs in 2021. Hendrickson was named to all-district and all-conference rosters following the season.
“Kloe is a phenomenal libero,” Ellison said. “She is consistent on serve receive, hustles, dives all over the floor and keeps balls in play. She is our defensive leader and fun to watch.”
Junior middle/outside hitter Belle Barrickman will once again utilize her versatility at the net for the Panthers. Barrickman (135 kills, 31 blocks) was an all-district selection in 2021.
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“Belle is a versatile front row player,” Ellison said. “She puts up a big block and can play both outside and middle. She is another one of our go-to hitters.”
Senior middle hitter Katelyn Collins (116 kills, 44 blocks) adds depth and experience to Forsyth’s potent front line.
“Katelyn continues to improve in the off season and has been working hard to dominate the net with blocking and has improved her hitting as well,” Ellison said. “She will be another hitting option we will depend on.”
Junior middle hitter/right side Lindsey Essary (88 kills, 41 blocks) rounds out the list of returning Panthers.
“Lindsey is a smart front row player,” Ellison said. “She has great court awareness and is good at knowing where the holes are and finding a way to put the ball there.”
Forsyth also welcomes a quartet of junior newcomers to the varsity roster in Tatym Halbrook (S/RS), JC Wallis (OH/DH), Madi Cook and Hailey Avis.
Ellison expects Halbrook and Wallis to fill significant roles for the varsity squad this season.
“Tatym recently moved to Forsyth and will make an immediate impact in the setter’s role,” Ellison said. “She is tall, athletic, has good hands, and can attack and put up a big block in the front row.
“JC has been working hard and improving in the off season in both hitting and defense. She’s a hustler on defense and can jump and hit the ball as well. She will be playing both outside and right side.”
While Forsyth will feature plenty of new faces in new roles this season, expectations remain the same as the team hopes to continue building upon its recent success.
“I have high expectations for this team,” Ellison said. “We have a lot of returning key players, and some talented newcomers, that allow us to be a competitive team and exciting to watch this season. We will be very competitive in our conference and be a contender to win our district again. It is our goal to give our best effort every game!”
Ellison expects the Panthers to run both 5-1 and 6-2 rotations this season, with Halbrook quarterbacking the attack from the setter position.
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“Tatym is tall, athletic, has good hands and can attack from the front row and put up a big block,” Ellison said. “When our passing, setting, and attacking is on, we have go-to hitters who can put the ball away, and girls who can place the ball to make our offense hard to defend.”
On defense, Ellison expects Hendrickson to once again set the tone and limit scoring opportunities for opposing hitters.
“Kloe is our defensive leader and tries to get a hand on everything,” Ellison said. “Our overall defense is improving and will continue to be a focus.”
Forsyth will open the regular season Aug. 27 in the Branson Invitational Tournament.