Defending League Champion Tigers Look to Bring the Juice

TITLE DEFENSE: Centralia to Defend League Title With Five Returning Starters and Eager Group of Newcomers

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Centralia volleyball coach Marti Smith gathers 32 of her players in a circle and explains what everyone in the gymnasium is wondering. Why are there eight juice boxes sitting on a table off to the side?

Smith tells her players that if, throughout Tuesday’s practice, they see one of their teammates being energetic, then they can hand that teammate one of the juice boxes. It’s Smith’s way of telling her players to “be juiceful, not juiceless” and to “bring the juice.”

“I thought it would be fun for the girls to recognize a person who was bringing the juice, aka bringing high energy and being an energy giver to others,” Smith said. “Volleyball is about maintaining good energy, so whatever I can do to help with that, I’ll try it.”

Smith and her team are looking for every advantage they can get to help defend what was likely the school’s first-ever league volleyball title in program history last season. 

Just two years after going winless, the Tigers reeled off a nine-game win streak to capture the 2A Evergreen Conference title, finishing 9-2 overall and 9-1 in league. 

And it was looking like the Tigers might be favorites to repeat after bringing back the bulk of their starters, eight in total and four of whom were all-league selections. But now they’ll have to defend that title without three of those key cogs.

Gone is first-team, all-league setter Madison Stoeckler, who led the county with 327 assists last season and recently moved to Florida. Also gone is second-team, all-league selection Madelinn Corwin, who’s not playing for personal reasons and Lauren Wasson, who suffered a knee injury during basketball season and was slated to be a starting outside hitter this year.

Smith didn’t sugarcoat the loss of those three, saying they won’t be easy to replace.

“That’s really hard, especially when you were expecting to come back with the majority of everyone, especially in those key roles,” Smith said. “Not having to think about rebuilding, you’re really excited about defending that title and going further, but you could definitely say we’re in that rebuilding mode again.”

But Smith was quick to point out that the team is capable of repeating as league champs, it will just take time for the players to gel and build trust amongst themselves.

“Their heart is more than what I could ever expect to have,” Smith said. “As easy as it would have been for them to come into the season feeling deflated because of losing who we lost, they’ve just come in with the same energy. It’s been great.”

The team is far from depleted. Returning are five starters, three of whom are all-league selections, led by senior three-year starter Jadyn Hawley, a second-team, all-league outside hitter/defensive specialist. She served 141-151 at a blazing 93% and averaged seven kills per game while collecting 246 defensive digs (22.3 per game).

“I’m super excited to be back on the court with all my teammates,” Hawley said. “Excited to see what this year brings.”

Also back is senior libero Evie Rooklidge, a second-team selection, sophomore Peyton Smith, a honorable-mention pick, senior Ella Orr and junior Tatum Johnston. Smith expects the three seniors to step up into the leadership roles.

“They bring knowledge of the game, a great energy and they’re three of our best defenders,” Smith said.

In fact, Smith said the Tigers’ defense could be even better this year. Offensively, they still have some work to do with an influx of new and young players filling in at key roles. And Smith isn’t sure yet what she plans to run offensively, whether it’s the 5-1 they used last year or a 6-2, with two setters.

Peyton Smith, who’s been a defensive specialist the past two years, is a veteran who could take over Stoeckler’s setting role.

One newcomer who could make an instant impact is sophomore Makayla Chavez, who was the Tigers’ starting varsity point guard as a freshman last year. She saw some varsity time at outside hitter toward the end of the season last year and picked up the game quickly.

“It’s going to be a season of; I’m going to be expecting some players to play positions they haven’t necessarily played before,” Smith said. “But I completely believe in their ability to handle the positions.”

Another newcomer is sophomore Emily Willkerson, who steadily improved throughout the JV season last year and showed some spark of being a dominant middle. Versatile sophomore Gracie Schofield could see time at setter or as a defensive player.

“The young players have a lot of energy and they want to learn,” Smith said. “You can’t teach energy and eagerness and competitiveness, and I can definitely say all the players I have, they’re competitive. If you have the heart and desire, that can take the place of talent sometimes.”

Smith is already seeing that enthusiasm and hunger pay off in the first week of practice. That, combined with the senior leadership, will determine how far the Tigers go this season, Smith said.  

“I really think it’s going to be through the three seniors I have who will set the tone and the pace,” Smith said. “After day one of practice, they’ve already stepped up. I haven’t forced them to do anything. They’ve taken on the role and they’ve been awesome. How I think we do will go through those three seniors.”