The handbooks Jennifer Hawk distributed to her players prior to the season included a cover page with a rather succinct message:
Be hard to beat.
Since August, those words have been the winds pushing the sail of Hawk’s third Center Grove team, which is 19-3 and ranked eighth in Class 4A entering the annual county tournament.
The Trojans open play tonight with a first-round match at Indian Creek. Center Grove has claimed the last nine county titles since Franklin celebrated local supremacy in 2013.
For the record, Center Grove has been difficult to best, the lone blemishes being against two other 4A powers — second-ranked Cathedral and No. 4 Roncalli— along with 3A No. 2 Providence.
The team’s success is something of a departure from last season’s squad that finished 19-16, snapping the program’s nine-year run of 20-plus win seasons.
Center Grove did claim its 34th sectional championship, but lost the following week in three sets to Floyd Central at regional.
However, being a year older, wiser and more experienced is bound to make a difference.
“It’s definitely our mindset,” said 5-foot-7 senior outside hitter Sophie Sabol, who is second on the team in digs (219) and third in kills (161). “We have the players, we have talent. It was just a matter of the mindset we had going into games. We just have one goal in mind, and that’s winning.”
Now as much as any time in the recent past, success can be attributed to a variety of players and factors.
Middle blockers Reese Dunkle and Ava Mardis, standing 6-3 and 6-2, respectively, make for a formidable presence at the net. Junior outside hitter Ellen Zapp leads Center Grove with 247 kills with Dunkle second with 199; Mardis’ 63 blocks are 11 behind Dunkle’s team-best total.
The team’s starting libero, senior Sheridan Young, leads in digs with 304. Freshman setter Anabelle Schembra is at 471 assists for the season, while senior Emma Leavitt has 186.
Center Grove also features junior Maddi Higginson (188 digs), who plays back row for Zapp, and senior Ava Beecher, who plays back row for sophomore right side hitter Natalie Vance. Junior hitter Annika Alvey is third on the team in blocks with 37.
“We have a more well-rounded offense. Everyone is just a lot more versatile along the front row. We can run a lot of different attacks,” Dunkle said. “We’ve really developed a good tempo, and we know who is going to pull through and when.
“I’m thrilled with how we’ve played this season.”
The Trojans will have to stay the course if they are to repeat as county champion.
Indian Creek is very solid with a 15-3 record. Potential title-match opponent Franklin (17-4) took Center Grove through four hard-fought sets — including a 37-35 marathon loss in the third game — earlier this season.
Whiteland (11-7) also looms on the other side of the tournament bracketing with its best team in years.
Hawk sees it as another opportunity for her team to be, well, hard to beat.
“The majority of our team is getting used to having to carry some of the load,” Hawk said. “We really emphasize spreading our offense out. Just a little more maturity. Some people were trying to figure it out a little bit last year, but now we’re more seasoned and experienced.
“Looking at our roster, we knew we had the ability to be very good. There’s still room to grow. We have some aspects we struggle with, but day one to now, we’ve definitely improved.”
IF YOU GO
Johnson County tournament
Center Grove at Indian Creek, 7:15 p.m.
Greenwood Christian at Edinburgh, 7:15 p.m.
Whiteland at Greenwood, 7:15 p.m.
Center Grove-Indian Creek winner vs. GCA-Edinburgh winner, 5:30 p.m.
Whiteland-Greenwood winner vs. Franklin, 5:30 p.m.
Championship, 7 p.m.