The feeling of a lost opportunity fell over the Mercer Island High School girls volleyball team following state last year. The team swept through KingCo for an undefeated season and league title. The team then placed second at the district tournament only to be sent home prior to placing at state.
“We really thought that was the team that would make a mark,” said senior co-captain Janelle Chow. “But as we keep practicing, I think we are just as good with more heart and motivation.”
The team is dominated by seniors with seven on the roster putting their bodies on the line at practice.
“The seniors are motivated,” said Mercer Island Coach Dino Annest. “Each spot has been filled from last year and if they all do their job, the team could be stronger.”
Chow is a perfect example of that hard work and determination, covered in bruises following a recent practice.
“I have been working out a lot this summer,” said Chow, who also played club volleyball.
Chow’s ability on the court can be dominating.
“She compliments all the players around her,” said Annest. “Her shot selection has got better as well.”
Chow, along with fellow seniors Ally Bray and Chelsea Jurkovich, will lead the team on and off the court as team captains.
One big change for the volleyball program is the loss of Taryn McDonald as an assistant coach. McDonald was the sophomore and freshman coach for seven years, with eight years overall on the team. In her place is Nikole Thompson, who brings a wealth of volleyball experience on and off the court.
“She really knows her stuff,” said Annest.
Changes have come on the court as well. The team undoubtedly lost height with the graduation of two girls over six feet tall. But what this year’s team lacks in height, it makes up for in speed, said Annest.
“Speed kills in any sport,” said Annest. “But we have some girls who play bigger than they look.”
One of those players is junior Kaylia Balinbin, who is only 5-foot-4.
“She plays like she is 5-8,” said Annest. “But when I watch them, I don’t see one player.”
That last statement has to be taken into context, since Chow is widely regarded as the best athlete in the school.
The realignment of the league will change the team with the target for the Islanders. No longer is Issaquah or Newport the top rival of Mercer Island — both have moved on to the 4A level. Now it is Mount Si.
“There is less variety in our schedule because we play everyone twice,” said Annest.
The odds of going undefeated in league play for a second consecutive year are not very good, but that is the team’s goal. The best placing at state for the Islanders is sixth, which they have achieved twice in the school’s history. But the state goal to place in the top five remains. Last year’s loss at the district final is also history that the Islanders would like a chance to rewrite.
“We have another opportunity,” said Annest. “Last year was not the last chance for this group.”