SOUTH WEBSTER — While the memories do last an entire lifetime, at some point — like everybody else — South Webster’s volleyball program had to turn the proverbial page.
Four decorated Jeep seniors graduated, and are now playing at the collegiate level, including three for volleyball.
Throw in an offseason wrench of the Jeeps jumping to Division III from Division IV, given the new Ohio High School Athletic Association enrollment numbers count, and you clutch those memories from a season ago even tighter.
But, there is a new core four for the Jeeps —and definitely don’t tell them they can’t repeat as Southern Ohio Conference Division II champions, and even make another regional run, despite stepping up a division.
Seniors Natalie Adkins and Riley Raynard, and juniors Bella Claxon and Skylar Zimmerman along with 18-year SWHS head coach Darcee Claxon, recently interviewed with The Portsmouth Daily Times — and all agreed another regional championship is in the Jeeps’ cards.
“I think it’s possible, but it’s going to take hard work. It’s a different set of players, but they have the tools there. It will be interesting to see how it plays out, but they are going to see success,” said Coach Claxon. “This is a different team with different strengths and weaknesses, but it’s still a team that can be very successful. The girls are game players and know how to win at high levels. I look forward to them being successful again this year.”
Although, to what degree does this forethought success encompass?
The seniors have already experienced three district championships and the juniors a pair —as the team two years back broke through and returned to the Division IV Region 15 championship bout, before falling to Newark Catholic.
Last season, the tight-knit Jeeps exacted a demonstrative and dramatic measure of revenge —sweeping Newark Catholic and capturing the Region 15 title, and with it the school’s first state tournament trip in the sport.
They fell in four sets to eventual Division V state champion New Knoxville —as Adkins, Raynard, Claxon and Zimmerman all played key roles in that historic campaign.
Now given the significant graduation losses to Faith Maloney, Bri Claxon, Graci Claxon and Rylee McGraw, these new-look Jeeps just see it as accepting advanced roles —and taking the team leadership mantle.
“A lot of vocal leadership. Those four were there to tell us to ‘pick it up’ or ’ we need to do this’. This year, we need to be a lot more vocal leaders and even leaders on the court,” said Bella Claxon.
Maloney and Graci Claxon are now playing volleyball at Mount Vernon Nazarene University, as McGraw is a member of Ohio Christian University’s volleyball team.
Bri Claxon is a member of Gannon University’s women’s basketball squad, as Gannon is an NCAA Division II program in Erie, Pa.
The six-foot middle hitter Maloney made all-Ohio in Division IV twice — including as a first-team selection last season.
Graci Claxon, the libero, made Honorable Mention all-Ohio —and easily arguably Bri Claxon could have, and even should have, been recognized as an all-state outside hitter.
The season saw celebration from October into November and even after —all the way up until the Jeeps’ college signings, and graduations in May.
“Last year was amazing, it was something that we set as a goal and achieved it, it was something several years in the making, and it was a whirlwind,” said Darcee Claxon.
The quartet, and Coach Claxon, then was asked —at what point —does the program move forward, and even duplicate its road map back to the state tournament from a season ago.
“Definitely very motivated. Coming off such a successful season, we don’t want to set any low standards for ourselves,” said Bella Claxon. “We still want to set the bar as high as we can. Try to create as much success as we did last season. We still reminisce on the moments of last year, and we always will. But by summer workouts, we really talked about how we want to bring it again this year. Last year is done, but we’re the new group and new team and we want to make our own new successes with each other.”
“We always talk about last year because it was so awesome. But yeah, we want to do this again,” added Raynard.
So don’t expect the Jeeps to rest on any laurels, as they — along with Division III Wheelersburg and West and Division II Waverly — are viewed by most observers as the top-tier half of the rugged SOC II.
Of course, South Webster will have the target on its backs as the defending division champion.
“I think that makes us more competitive, makes us want to win even more than we already did,” admitted Zimmerman.
“We can’t underestimate any game in the SOC,” added Adkins. “We have to bring our game and play our game every game and not worry about our opponents.”
As for the postseason tournament, the Jeeps’ opponents are going to be larger schools.
In volleyball, the Jeeps jumped with an adjusted enrollment of 129 — given a 2021 EMIS (Education Management Information System) number of 113 and a 2021 CB (competitive balance) number of 16.
Don’t expect any opposition to feel sorry for South Webster, though.
Instead, Zimmerman mentioned it as creating a new group culture.
“This is a new team and we have to make a new culture for ourselves,” she said. “We’re a small school, so we’re always together anyways. Last year, we were all really close and all really selfless. It didn’t matter who got the glory, we would celebrate, no matter if you were on the bench or on the court. This year, we’re still trying to learn that with our new teammates and teammates that we didn’t have last year.”
Indeed, learning to live life following a state tournament run is all about the Jeeps of 2022.
But Coach Claxon concurs, with the correct approach, a repeat regional run can be in store —even in Division III.
“When you go that far, when you win, when you have success, the pressure is on you. And with pressure comes expectations, and sometimes you can succumb to those expectations, so you have to find a balance in that and not lose the joy of competition and the camaraderie of it. It’s hard to do, but if you have a good team culture, which is something we worked super hard on last year and are really working on again this year, then you can enjoy competing and even having that target on your back,” said the coach. “That’s going to be something we have to be very intentional about, so it doesn’t become a chore. It continues to be something that we embrace.”
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at [email protected], or on Twitter @paulboggssports © 2022 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved