Team-First Mentality Key for Young Chargers
In talking with Illini West Head Volleyball Coach Dakota Flesner, the biggest takeaway I had was that she preaches and hammers home the point of her players playing like a team. Strong communication, unselfishness and a willingness to work are just a few of the requirements she holds and believes her players should hold of themselves, should they expect consistent playing time. This summer, do to a very young roster with not much varsity level experience, that has been a learning process, but one she feels is going in the right direction.
“There’s expectations for everybody and I have girls working harder than I’ve ever had in seasons past, because everyone wants to play,” Said Flesner, “Playing time, I tell the girls, is the biggest motivator and I’ve seen that this summer. Last year at our home tournament, we went 0-4. This year we went 3-1. You know records in the summer don’t matter, but still that tells me that their hard work is helping them progress.”
In that tournament, which took place this past Friday, July 12, and featured West Hancock, Southeastern, West Prairie, Bushnell Prairie City, Lewistown, Rushville-Industry and Western, Illini West impressed throughout. They seemed to communicate very well with one another and with Flesner, and their play flowed nicely as a unit. The result may, as stated, be irrelevant for the regular season, but it goes to show how the team has developed throughout the summer.
“Our defense and servicing were pretty consistent,” Flesner remarked, “We went up against some hard servers and our girls kept their head. If you saw us shank a ball or miss a pass, I saw someone step up on the next one. The last thing we want is for one error to turn into another error and add on from there. We seemed mentally tough for being young.”
Among the attributes that stuck out to me and have resonated with Flesner so far, has been the communication of the team. They are a very talkative group, constantly calling for plays, positioning, and discussing and attacking the issues that develop over the course of a game. Flesner says this is a product of the mentality she coaches with every day.
“Every single day in practice we have to have perfect effort and a perfect attitude, and with that is communication” Said Flesner, “You can’t give good effort and be a quiet teammate and I always tell them, if you’re quiet, you’re a selfish player. You have to be talking all the time. The first year I was here that was tough, because they just didn’t talk. The girls have now seen going through three years with me, they see that when they talk they’re more relaxed on the court, they’re more confident, they make plays that they didn’t think they could make, and it probably helps that I talk a lot from the sides. But you can’t be a successful teammate and be mute on the court, and they see that.”
Despite all of this positive development, the youth in this roster will still create challenges throughout the season. With just 3 returning seniors in Alexis Smith, Paige Gutting and Taylor Pence, it is a season of transition for the Chargers. There is plenty of promise though, as sophomores Ava Bliss, Hallie Ray and Megan Harrell have all shown plenty of potential to become star hitters, and junior Karli Artman returns as one of the smartest setters in the area. One of the most intriguing players mentioned, however, was 5’3” outside hitter, Alisza LeMaire. Despite her height, Flesner said she “plays tall” and that she “covers the back really well and can hang in the air with taller hitters”. There is excitement in the air, but it will still require plenty more work.
“We truly only have two, maybe a third, players who have quality varsity experience,” Flesner replied, “So I’m expecting to see a lot of underclass mistakes, typical underclass mistakes. Hitting errors, stuff like that. What I keep telling the girls is to not get frustrated, we’re going to get better, I’d rather make those errors early in the season and then by the end we’re fine tuned.”
Expectations are still extremely high for the program, coming off of a season that saw the Chargers reach the Semi-Finals of the IHSA Sectional tournament a year ago. The seniors, having experienced such success, are hungry to repeat that one more time, and for the underclassmen, it is all about building a foundation of success for future squads to step into. This has all the makings of a fun season in Carthage.
“From what I’ve seen this summer, and our senior leadership, a Regional Championship I don’t think is out of their reach,” Said Flesner, “The seniors set their goals and talked to me about it during the summer, and they want to win a Regional Championship and more. So we just have to remind them, like every team, you can’t just say ‘I want to win’ and not put the work in. If that’s their goal, I’m going to hold them to it.”