Conway Lady Cats gear up for volleyball season

By Donna Stephens Originally Published August 18, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated August 16, 2013 at 2:46 p.m.
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CONWAY — A year after winning yet another conference championship and reaching the semifinals of the Class 7A State Volleyball Tournament, Conway’s Lady Wampus Cats will be in learning mode for 2013.

At least they will be for a while.

For years, Conway has been one of the state’s best volleyball programs, and certainly the class of central Arkansas, although the Lady Cats haven’t won a state championship since gaining the title in 1998 under Janet Taylor. They have won six consecutive conference titles, including the past four in the 7A/6A Central. Except for coach Laura Crow’s first year, when the Lady Cats lost in the state championship to Jonesboro, they have fallen every year in the state tournament to a foe from the West until last season. In 2012, their Central opponent, Fort Smith Southside, ended the Lady Cats’ season in the semifinals.

“We will be young in certain positions, but we have great talent and a lot of potential,” said Crow, 265-57 overall (.823) and an incredible 142-6 (.959) in conference matches as she begins her 12th season atop the Lady Cat program. “I feel it will be a bit rocky in the beginning as the girls work to play as a team and learn each other on the court.”

Conway finished 24-5 last year, including 13-1 through the 7A/6A Central. As the Central champion, the Lady Cats earned a bye for the opening round of the state tournament. They beat Springdale Har-Ber in the quarterfinals, 25-15, 25-20, 25-17, before falling to Fort Smith Southside, third seed from the Central. Fayetteville, winner of the West, beat Southside in the state final.

The Lady Cats return three senior starters from 2012: 5-6 setter Bailey McKee, 5-8 middle blocker Jada Benton and 5-5 libero Rachel Skinner.

McKee recorded 884 assists, 31 aces and 160 digs as a junior.

“She has had a long road to get to her senior year after missing two volleyball seasons because of ACL tears,” Crow said. “She did a great job leading us last year. She’s a very versatile player and can step up and play any position.”

Benton recorded 148 kills and 33 blocks with a .272 attack percentage last year, and returns after an ACL tear.

“Jada is looking better than ever with a great vertical, and her timing is coming back slowly,” Crow said. “I look for some great blocks and hits from her.”

Skinner had 55 aces and 228 digs last season.

“Rachel is relentless in her pursuit of the volleyball this year, and that will make her a great libero,” Crow said.

The Lady Cats have three other returning lettermen in Courtney Campbell, a 5-8 senior right-side player; Sara Nethercutt, a 5-8 junior setter; and Alexa Hreha, a 5-6 junior outside hitter. Campbell recorded 10 blocks as she stepped in when Benton tore her ACL. Nethercutt had 213 assists, 32 kills and a .375 attack percentage last year. Hreha claimed 91 kills as a sophomore.

“Courtney did a great job at coming in and taking that role over after Jada went out,” Crow said. “This year she will be competing for the right-side position. Sara is an up-and-coming varsity player that we expect great things from. She understands the game well. She’s always working on something in the gym to get better. Alexa brings aggressiveness to the team. She not only shines on the back row as a passer, but also has a great serve.”

Key newcomers include Maddie Pressley, a 5-10 sophomore outside hitter; Mackenzie Dear, a 5-7 sophomore outside hitter; and Allison Weatherly, a 5-9 junior middle blocker.

Pressley was a surprise transfer from Fort Smith. She would have been at Southside this fall.

“We look forward to her presence on the court,” Crow said. “She will help us offensively.”

Dear is the younger sister of Lauren Dear, a former Lady Cat all-state player.

“If she stays on the right road, she may surpass her sister’s records,” Crow said.

Weatherly is “very athletic.”

“We’re looking forward to her blocking in the middle this year,” the coach said. “She is coming along offensively as well.”

The Central conference, which also includes Southside, Fort Smith Northside, Greenwood, Little Rock Hall, Mount St. Mary, Little Rock Parkview and Russellville, will be tough again in 2013, Crow said.

“We have two teams that made it to the finals at the (Class) 6A State Tournament — Russellville and Greenwood,” she said. “Of course, Southside will be very good. We were 2-2 against them last year, 1-1 in conference. Northside was young last year and is returning a few who will be very good. When Conway and Mount St. Mary play, it is always a fight. We will have to bring our ‘A’ game to do well.”

Conway opens the season at North Little Rock on Aug. 27.

None Donna Stephens can be reached at .

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