Lady Jays open volleyball season today

Jefferson City’s Abbi McKnelly digs a ball during a game last year against Hickman. McKnelly is a retuning all-state performer from last season.

Jefferson City’s Abbi McKnelly digs a ball during a game last year against Hickman. McKnelly is a retuning all-state performer from last season. Photo by News Tribune.

Despite reaching the Class 4 quarterfinals last year, Jefferson City head volleyball coach Chris Meyer detected a flaw in her team’s game.

It was Jefferson City’s defense that ultimately kept the Lady Jays from reaching the Final Four.

So during the summer and weeks leading up to today’s season opener, it’s been all about defense for the Lady Jays.

“Every player in the state of Missouri can hit a ball,” Meyer said. “But not every player can play defense. As a team, (that) especially gets you to that next level.”

Jefferson City, which opens the season at 5:30 p.m. today at St. Joseph’s Academy in St. Louis, had been able to get by before by outhitting teams. That wasn’t the case however in their matchup against Ozark, as the Tigers taught the Lady Jays a lesson in defense.

“We definitely felt that last year in that Ozark game,” Meyer said.

To get in front of the problem, the Lady Jays have moved senior Mallory York from setter to libero. She played libero on her club team this summer, a move that ends up working out perfectly for the Lady Jays.

“She’s playing just phenomenal defense over the summer, which has led into this beginning part of the season,” Meyer said. “She reads the ball really well for us which allowed us to set for her. But we’re focusing so much on defense, that switch just made sense to (assistant coach Jamie) Marshall and I.”

That frees up the setter position for sophomore Maggie Albert, who was a setter for the JV team last year.

Other than Albert, the returnees saw lots of varsity action last season.

York is one of a plethora of experienced girls returning for the Lady Jays that includes seven seniors. The returners are led by senior outside hitter and all-stater Abbi McKnelly.

“Abbi has made a transformation from last year,” Meyer said. “I think she is more mature this year, I think she sees the big picture for herself that her team is essential for success.”

McKnelly will be joined on the outside by junior Becca Sturgess and on the right side by senior Sloan Pleus.

Sturgess played on the right side last season.

“We just felt like with that movement it just made our team a lot better, not only on the offensive end but more specifically on the defensive end,” Meyer said.

Seniors Madison Bond and Mackenzy Kliethermes will hold down the middle this year for the Lady Jays.

“I think the leadership quality is going to be our biggest advantage,” Meyer said. “Several of these girls have played varsity for several years now and so they’ve been around not only the transition from (former coach Curt) Yaeger to myself, but they’ve also been around the championship level two years ago making it to the sectional game, and last year making it to the quarterfinal game, and I think there is a lot to be said for that.”

Jefferson City, which was 23-11-2 last season, has spiced up its schedule. Besides today’s game against St. Joseph’s Academy, the Lady Jays have added the Lee’s Summit North Tournament and the Blue Springs South Tournament to the schedule. Jefferson City’s district remains the same with Rolla, Waynesville, Lebanon, Camdenton and Willard.

“We feel we’ve taken another step in schedule,” Meyer said.

But the next step on the court may depend on how Jefferson City’s defense shakes out.

“I think it helps when the bulk of your varsity team was at that game and they saw it, and they understand they don’t have to go back and watch a film,” Meyer said. “We don’t have to keep talking about it over and over. But they know why we are focusing on defense so much.”

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