Senior six-footers Darci Billmire and Katie Isham and sophomore Dylana Hutchins provided a huge defensive block in the middle for the Decatur Lady Eagles on their way to a state title last fall.
As the Lady Eagles start their title defense, they will look to Hutchins and a young pair of blockers – junior Emily Oxford and sophomore Kelsie Worley – to measure up to the task.
While they’re not the imposing figures Billmire and Isham presented at the net, Decatur coach Claire Benedict-Gay is confident in the trio.
“They are going to step up and get the job done,” Benedict-Gay said.
As one of the starting middle blockers last year, the 5-10 Hutchins earned first-team 9-3A and Wise County selections. She recorded 157 kills, 115 digs, 67 blocks and 40 aces.
“Dylana played a big role last year,” Benedict-Gay said. “Although she may not look like a middle, she plays the position well. She’s smart, quick, aggressive and is not scared of anyone because of their size.”
Oxford, 5-10, was a reserve for the Lady Eagles last year after becoming a middle blocker. Benedict-Gay said Oxford was moved to the role after growing several inches.
“She moved last year and looks more comfortable this year,” the Decatur coach said.
Oxford knows it’s a big step for her to compete for a starting spot on the defending state champions.
“I have big shoes to fill. Dylana is leading us right now,” Oxford said. “Once I work hard and connect, we’ll be a lot better.”
After playing on the junior varsity last year, Worley, 5-10, is making the step up to varsity.
“I like working with the older girls. I have a lot to learn,” she admitted.
Benedict-Gay said the sophomore is improving each practice.
“She’s picking it up and learning the footwork,” Benedict-Gay said.
The trio of middle blockers will be depended on to slow opponents at the net even though they may not rack up the block totals of last year’s group.
“We’ll get some touches on the ball,” Hutchins said.
Oxford added: “We have to do our job and get to the ball.”
What they lack in height, Hutchins said they will make up for with speed.
“Since we’re not as tall as Katie and Darci, we’ll have to keep up with quickness,” Hutchins said. “We can’t outjump someone 6-1, but we can beat them by getting to the ball quicker.”
Along with their contributions on defense, the trio will need to add some punch to the Lady Eagles’ offense in support of the talented cast of hitters, including Makayla Mayfield, Caroline Lowery and Cooper Martin.
“We expect our middles to be an offensive threat,” Benedict-Gay said. “Our setters are good at forcing the ball to them. Because they are so fast, it’ll make us tough to defend.”
The trio will see their first live action at 10 a.m. Friday in a scrimmage at Lovejoy. The Lady Eagles will scrimmage at Aledo Saturday.
Through the first two days of practice, Benedict-Gay was encouraged by her team’s approach.
“They are eager to work hard and get better,” she said. “How they finished last year means nothing for 2014. The girls want to work hard and get better every day.”