There are nine big shoes to fill on the Grant Union Prospector volleyball team this season.
Although the team graduated all the main starters, a new crop of talent is ready to grow into the roles left behind.
Grant Union brought home a second-place trophy from state competition last season with current head coach Ali Abrego, falling in a tight game to Portland Christian, which won with scores of 28-26, 23-25, 25-11, 24-26 and 15-13. Grant Union won it all the year before, earning the 2A state championship title under head coach Shae Speth.
The Prospectors were champions of the Blue Mountain Conference last year with a 12-0 league record, 28-5 overall.
Of the nine graduating seniors, four received All-State honors, including Hailie Wright, setter, first team; Kaylee Wright, outside hitter, first team; Trinity Hutchinson, middle blocker, second team; and Alcie Moore, setter, honorable mention.
Now, Abrego is revamping the program with 24 girls eager to fill the empty spots of players they’ve looked up to as leaders.
The team’s four seniors are Taylor Allen, Kaytlyn Wells, Baylee Combs and Averie Wenger. Rounding out the roster are four juniors, 10 sophomores and six freshmen.
“It’s awesome that we have the numbers this season,” Abrego said. “We have a lot of sophomores in this group, which is both a blessing and a curse.”
A blessing because the sophomores have a history of playing together and a curse because she’ll have to let yet another large group go when they graduate, she said.
“I love big classes, but it will hurt my heart to graduate that many again,” Abrego said. She noted that last year’s junior varsity team had a “fairly successful season.”
Varsity positions are still being filled, including team captains.
So far, two team captains have been chosen, including Allen, a strong outside hitter who saw a lot of playing time last season, and sophomore Lauryn Pettyjohn, the libero (defensive specialist) for the team.
“Having a senior and sophomore as captains speaks a lot about their ability to lead this group,” Abrego said.
She said her main goal is for a “unified group of girls,” and she’ll be looking to the team leaders to keep the squad cohesive.
“If I’m not teaching them the proper way to lead the team, then I’m not doing my job,” she added.
She’ll be looking to the captains to “build a positive team culture and positive program,” especially with the six incoming freshmen.
Adding to the welcoming atmosphere is new assistant coach Andrea Combs.
“We balance each other out,” Abrego said. “I’m very driven to win. She’s very supportive and uplifting and always offering a friendly face and someone to rely on.”
Grant Union will face Enterprise, Heppner, Pilot Rock, Stanfield, Union and Weston-McEwen in the 2A-6 Blue Mountain Conference.
Abrego expects Union and Weston-McEwen to be “pretty tough this year.”
While the Prospectors have their work cut out for them, they’ll be playing to their strengths.
“We’re striving to be the heavy hitting team,” the coach said. “You have the power, now let’s get the footwork — your basics.”
Grace Taylor, one of Grant Union’s taller players, is a setter.
Abrego said they’re “still figuring out the middle and outside situation.”
Wells has played in the middle blocker and outside hitter position, and Maddie Spencer also has tournament experience with the varsity team.
The Prospectors are hosting a tournament at 9 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 31, at the Prairie City School gym, because the Grant Union gym is currently undergoing floor work.
Invited to compete with Grant Union are 1A Prairie City, 1A Dayville/Monument, Weston-McEwen, Heppner and Enterprise.
The four Grant Union seniors, who’ve been playing the sport together since second grade, are positive about the season’s prospects.
“We’re a really young team, but we have a lot of potential,” Allen said. “We have a good block, and we’re determined. I’m looking forward to this last season, because it’s going to be a good one.”
Wells said she’s sad it’s the final season of her high school career, but she’s feeling positive about the strengths she’s seeing in her teammates.
“I feel like we’ll have a strong passing line,” she said. “We have a lot of strong passers this year. And we’re good at blocking, because we’re tall and quick.”
Wenger, who took a break from volleyball last year, is ready for the season.
“I’m glad to be back playing volleyball,” she said. “I think we have really good coaching staff, and we have a lot of drive.”
Baylee Combs agreed.
“I’m excited to be a part of such a great program,” she said. “I’m excited to see how the younger players step up and fill the spots that (last year’s seniors) left open.”
Looking ahead, Abrego said she’s excited for what the season holds.
“It’ll be a learning curve,” she said. “I’m eager to see how they come together.”
“The last class of seniors left a big mark, and I’m interested to see these girls rise to the occasion,” she continued. “We have a lot of talented players and have some untapped talent. When they have that epiphany, that ‘aha’ moment, it’ll all come together.”
Grant Union volleyball schedule
Aug. 31: Grant Union Tournament in Prairie City, 9 a.m.
Sept. 3: vs. La Grande, 4 p.m.
Sept. 7: @ Heppner Tournament, 9 a.m.
Sept. 12: vs. Burns, 6:30 pm.
Sept. 13: @ East-West Volleyball Classic, Powder Valley High School, TBD
Sept. 14: @ East-West Volleyball Classic, Powder Valley High School, TBD
Sept. 17: @ Prairie City, 5:30 p.m.
Sept. 19: @ Heppner, 5 p.m.
Sept. 23: vs. Prairie City, 5:30 p.m.
Sept. 28: @ Stanfield, noon
Sept. 28: @ Weston-McEwen at Stanfield High School (L), 3 p.m.
Oct. 1: @ Union, 5 p.m.
Oct. 5: vs. Enterprise, 2 p.m.
Oct. 5: vs. Pilot Rock, 5 p.m.
Oct. 10: vs. Heppner, 5 p.m.
Oct. 12: vs. Stanfield, noon
Oct. 12: vs. Weston-McEwen, 3 p.m.
Oct. 15: vs. Union, 5 p.m.
Oct. 19: @ Enterprise, noon
Oct. 19: vs. Pilot Rock at Enterprise High School, 1:30 p.m.
Oct. 22: @ Burns, 6:30 p.m.
Oct. 26: Blue Mountain District Tournament at Stanfield, TBD
Nov. 2: First Round State Playoffs, TBD
Nov. 8: Quarterfinals, Ridgeview High School in Redmond, TBD
Nov. 9: Semifinals at Ridgeview, TBD
Nov. 9: Finals at Ridgeview, TBD
Some volleyball times show start time for JV games, followed by varsity.