Senior trio stepping up big for Titans
Oftentimes in sports leaders can come in different forms, while all providing the same type of leadership across the board. You’ve got the vocal leaders that really get their respective teams going through their words. Then you have the ones that lead by example through hard work and determination, and then you’ve got the leaders that are sort of in between in both categories and know just when to speak or just when to lead through their play.
For the Coal Ridge Titans’ volleyball team, that seems to be just the case this season as a trio of senior leaders have stepped up to the plate this year to not only fill prominent roles, but provide different styles of leadership while still getting the same great results.
Behind the leadership of senior setter Dana Kotz, senior middle hitter Kaitlyn Harlow and senior outside hitter Nicole Mooney, the Titans are once again off to a great start under Head Coach Aimee Gerber as Coal Ridge has raced out to a 6-2 record while sitting second in the 3A Western Slope League at 4-1 behind the Delta Panthers.
Mooney has stepped up as more of the vocal leader this season for the Titans, while Kotz is the shy, quiet type that certainly leads by example. Then you have Harlow, who does a little of both with the right mix to work more often than not. Having the leadership from the trio is very valuable this season, especially considering last season in which the Titans consistently turned to former standout middle hitter Kaitlyn Detlefsen, who took her talents to the University of Northern Colorado this season.
“The coach [Gerber] has talked a lot about leadership this year,” Mooney said. “So I definitely think we’ve stepped up in that role so far this year. I really like being a leader on this team, but I feel like with being a leader, there’s added pressure for me on the court. But I really like it knowing that my teammates are looking to me or Dana or Kaitlyn in big spots.”
While Mooney and Kotz played prominent roles last season for the Titans, Harlow was largely in the shadows of Detlefsen. Part of the impressive growth by Harlow comes from the fact that the senior had to try and do something nearly impossible by filling Detlefsen’s role on the 2016 version of the Titans. But through a slight scheme change as a team and an increase in confidence, Harlow has filled in admirably as the senior middle hitter sits fourth in total blocks (31) in the 3A WSL, fifth in kills (64) and third in serving aces (22) so far this season.
“Honestly, I was pretty intimidated by it [taking over for Detlefsen] because she was an All-State player and was one of the best at what she did for us,” Harlow said. “And it wasn’t just volleyball, it was all the other sports I played with her; I was usually always second to her, so I knew that this year had to be a big year for me personally. It was pretty scary at first, but it was something that needed to be done because everyone graduates at some point. But I did like having the high expectations so that I could personally push myself and know that the team needed someone as good as she was.”
So far through eight games Harlow said she feels she has contributed to the team in a big way and is just glad to be a part of something special as a senior. That’s something that Gerber echoed as well, touching on the fact that Harlow has really stepped up this season while remaining true to who she is.
“She had big shoes to fill and she knew it, “Gerber said. “But I assured her that all I wanted from her was her best and to be herself, and we’re starting to see the results from that. She knows she has a job to do for us. When we were down at Delta in the fourth game, I remember going to her on the bench during that fourth game and telling her that we needed her to step up and make plays at the net. Then I put her in and she had four blocks and two hits in just two plays for us. That was a moment with where it was like, ‘See? You can do this.’ That’s really helped her confidence tremendously.”
In years past, the Titans have been such a dominant team at the net in the middle of the court, but this year the Titans have transitioned to more of an outside hitting team as Mooney has come on strong through eight games with 110 kills, placing her second overall in the 3A WSL. The senior has always been a big hitter, but this year her numbers have skyrocketed due to an increase in her vertical jump, which she credits Athletic Director and Track & Field Head Coach Ben Kirk with improving.
“Last year I did track, and that was the first year that I had ever done it,” Mooney said. “So I was a jumper and I saw my vertical really increase. Just doing all those workouts with Coach Kirk has really improved my vertical, which has improved my hitting as I’m getting on top of the ball more instead of hitting as many out [of play] or into the net. That’s helped out a ton on the outside, because it’s a lot harder to be strong in. It’s a little more difficult when you’re getting the off-sets instead of running the plays directly into the middle, but it’s a lot of fun this year with the success we’re having.”
That transition to an outside-heavy team wasn’t easy at first, but with the amount of talent at the disposal for Gerber and the Titans has made it as smooth of a transition as possible.
“You know, I talked to the girls this summer about believing in the program and in themselves,” Gerber said. “The program doesn’t revolve around one player, but one player — or multiple players — will stand out in a big way. That’s what you’re seeing with these three seniors. But I think the transition was all about realizing and understanding your tools and using them to the best of your ability.”
That move to an outside-heavy team so far this season wouldn’t have been as smooth – in terms of wins and losses — as it has been without the quiet leadership of Kotz, who has developed into one of the better setters on the Western Slope over the last three seasons. So far through eight games, Kotz is second in the 3A WSL with 242 assists. That’s an impressive 30.25 assists per game. Not one to take credit for herself though, Kotz deflects all of the attention and credit to her teammates.
“I have those assist numbers that I do because my teammates are so good at doing the right things with the ball,” Kotz said. “It’s not about me or my stats, it’s honestly about the confidence and belief I have in my teammates to come up with big plays; I just set them up and that really suites me just fine. We have a great mix going on right now and it’s fun to see girls like Nicole, Kaitlyn, Kara [Morgan] and Cheyenne [Williams] finish off kills.”
What will go unnoticed about Kotz’s game though is that she’s always in the right place at the right time to make a play on the ball. Gerber, who has coached her for four seasons, said that all of that is due to impressive athleticism and great volleyball IQ.
“Confidence and IQ has been her biggest improvement over the last few seasons,” Gerber said. “Her IQ on the court is off the charts. If I tell her to change something on the court, she does it on the very next play. That’s super, because we can change our offense and our rotation on the fly because Dana knows right where to go and what to do. You know, a lot of times setters are just setters, but what a lot of people don’t know about Dana is that she’s one of our best hitters and blockers as well. She is a superb all-around player. It’s just night after night with her.”
Although the senior trio gets a lot of the love right now, the attention shifts to the team as the Titans return home for a big 3A WSL rivalry matchup with the Grand Valley Cardinals tonight. Coal Ridge has played six of eight regular season games so far on the road. Counting tonight’s home game, the Titans will now play five of their final eight games at home, which could be the boost that the experienced team needs to claim another league title and state playoff berth.
Getting a chance to play in front of their home crowd against a big rival like the Cardinals is something the Titans are looking forward to after some long road trips to start the season.
“We have the best fan best in the area,” Harlow said. “Our student section is incredible and our parents — and even parents from years past who don’t have kids that play anymore — come out and support us. We can’t wait to play in front of them again. Any time we get a chance to play Grand Valley it’s always a great time. We know them and they know us, so we’re really looking forward to the challenge that lies in front of us.”
The rivalry match will tip off at 6:30 p.m. at Coal Ridge High School in New Castle with second place in the 3A WSL on the line. Grand Valley rides into the matchup at 8-4 under Head Coach Dave Walck and seniors Kylyn Rigsby, Bailey Rowe, Lohgan McClung, Bryce Ettles and Tara Ruggles.