Panthers are looking to continue their upward trend this season.
It was an end of the season that had Whitman-Hanson Regional High girls’ volleyball head coach Ashley Balbian wishing last fall would never end.
Sitting at 2-17 with two contests remaining, the Panthers won out, defeating Middleboro and Bridgewater- Raynham — both by 3-1 scores — in a three-day span as it all started to come together.
“I think at the end we kind of found our groove,” Balbian said. “We had a lot more energy. A lot of younger girls felt more comfortable right as the season was ending, so now those girls are the leaders now so I could tell first practice that was the team, even better than before.”
Now the Panthers are back on the court, and Balbian, who is entering her second year leading the them, couldn’t be more ready to go.
“I’m really excited,” Balbian said. “I think that the girls coming in are just night and day compared to last year. They’re like different players. They’re more comfortable on the court, they’re confident and they’re having fun.”
Nine players return from last fall, all of whom received playing time.
“It’s invaluable,” Balbian said of her returning players’ experience. “I can already see the difference in practice.”
The Panthers do have their fair share of losses though. Halle Jillian (the program’s all-time blocks leader on record), Amanda Anderson and Tori Perry leave big holes.
Senior Nicole Scott and juniors Alexis Connolly and Olivia Martin replace Anderson and Julian as captains.
“I think it’s great to have three captains because the more, the better and they’re great leaders,” Balbian said. “They’re really positive and they always have a smile on their face.”
Scott, who was on junior varsity last season, brings an outsider perspective to the Panthers, which can’t hurt.
“I think from watching on the outside and coming in this year, I’ve realized we do need that more competitive edge,” Scott, who will play libero, said. “It’s good to keep each other positive after games but we got to take the next step and say, ‘Okay, what can we do to get better?’”
Connolly and Martin had big sophomore seasons. Connolly, an outside hitter, played in 52 of 75 sets and registered 92 attack attempts, 22 kills and 70 digs. Martin, a right side hitter, played in 59 sets, had 18 kills and 61 digs.
Both Connolly and Martin agreed, expectations are heightened this season.
“Last year was a building year,” Connolly said. “This year is definitely going to be better.” Said Martin: “[We want to] build on last year’s record.”
Middle hitter Ella Sweeney is also another key returnee for the Panthers, and she’s only a junior as well. She played in all but one set last season and posted 98 kills and 62 blocks.
“She has that experience,” Balbian said. “She brings that positive energy. She’s got that upbeat energy, which I think really adds to her as a player.”
Senior Alison Hanlon will provide a steady presence at outside hitter.
As for strengths, Scott pointed to the Panthers’ togetherness, something she watched work to their advantage last season as well.
“The home game where we played Duxbury – they’re such good competition,” she said. “They’re so good – there was one set where we weren’t ever ahead of them but we were so close and you could just tell we were having fun. We weren’t stressed. We weren’t mad or upset. We were just having fun and it definite ly showed on the court.”
The Panthers will be back on the floor Friday, Sept. 14 at 5 p.m. at home against Patriot League foe Plymouth North.
“I want to see them come out strong [and] confident,” Balbian said.