COVENTRY — The three-time defending Division II champion Exeter-West Greenwich girls volleyball team are doing a little rebuilding after graduating a number of talented players.
Of course, the rebuilding should go pretty smoothly with second-team All-State middle hitter Jennifer Donnelly back for her junior campaign. Donnelly and fellow middle hitter Jenna Bridges form the most menacing middle duo in II-South and give coach Josh Bednarczyk a solid platform to build this season’s team.
“We’re young with a lot of inexperience,” Bednarczyk said before his team played reigning state champion Coventry and II-South rival West Warwick in the Injury Fund last week at Coventry. “There are a lot of girls who have to step up and play some big roles for us this year.”
The Knights showed that inexperience in matches against Coventry’s starting lineup and a match against Coventry’s backups. After struggling against the Oaker backups, the Knights struggled to pass the ball against Coventry’s varsity starters.
But, the Injury Fund is just the first step in what the Knights hope is the long journey back to Keaney in November. As Bednarczyk point out, EWG doesn’t always play its best volleyball in September, but the Knights seem to find a way to play championship volleyball in November.
“The biggest thing is learning the game right now,” Bednarczyk said. “We’re young and we need to stay focused and progressing as the year goes on. That’s what we’ve been able to do the last few years. We need to do that again.”
EWG’s biggest advantage over the rest of II-South will be in the middle where Donnelly and Bridges both reside. Both girls are over six foot tall, but while Donnelly is a seasoned varsity starter, Bridges, a sophomore, is still learning the game on the varsity level.
“They’re both tall and athletic, but Jenna’s still young and she has a lot of learning to do,” Bednarczyk said. “She’s making progress, but there’s still plenty of progress left to go.” `
The Knights are likely to rely on Donnelly early in the season while the rest of the team adjusts to the varsity level, but Bednarczyk said relying on the All-Stater too much could hurt the Knights later in the season.
“I think we want to stay pretty balanced,” Bednarczyk said. “If you focus on getting the ball to one girl then the other team can focus on her and take her out of the match. We need everyone on the floor to contribute. We have 12 girls on varsity right now and we need all 12 to contribute for us.”
Lauren Unsworth will be one of the hitters Bednarczyk hopes can supplement Donnelly. The junior will be one of the starting outside hitters. The other outside hitter will come from a group of four underclassmen. Bednarczyk said whoever doesn’t start outside while still have a chance to start on the right side or in the back row.
“There’s pretty good competition for the other spot outside,” Bednarczyk said. “We’re looking at three or four girls who are competing for that spot and also the right-side spot so we can complete our lineup.”
Along with outside hitter, the setter spot is still up for grabs. Senior Morgan Iannuccilli and junior Mikaela Vivian are competing for the job. Bednarczyk could run a 6-2 system and use both girls as starters or he could chose one and run a 5-1.
“Right now we have two setters and I’m not sure how that’s going to work out,” Bednarczyk said. “We might be running a 5-1 or a 6-2, but we’re still trying to figure those things out.”
The Scarlet Knights started the season Tuesday night against the weakest team in the division last year, Scituate, before a big showdown Friday night against Narragansett, one of the two teams to beat the Knights last year.
Bednarczyk knows the division will be tough with East Greenwich returning All-State setter Phoebe Wong and Cranston West and Narragansett returning plenty of talent.
“West Warwick, Cranston West, East Greenwich are all good teams. It’s a nice division,” Bednarczyk said. “There are good teams in the division. Narragansett has Gabby (Leclerc) back. EG was young and strong last year. We just need to keep working hard and keep progressing.”