By BEN JOHNSON
Tahlequah has been on the doorstep, but just not granted access into the state volleyball tournament in the last several years. Many still hold the Tahlequah volleyball program in high regard.
But just in case, Tahlequah senior Gillian Tinnin wants to reinforce how people view Tahlequah volleyball.
“I’m excited because it’s my senior year,” she said, “and I just want to make an impact and change what people think about volleyball at Tahlequah.”
To do that, the Lady Tigers will be aiming for their first state-tournament appearance since 2009. Last season, Tahlequah was one match away from the state tournament field, but Cascia Hall impeded any process. Cascia Hall beat Tahlequah — who ended the season 28-12 — in three games, and then went on to claim the state championship.
And, unfortunately for Tahlequah, Cascia Hall isn’t the only powerhouse on the east side of the state in Class 5A.
Booker T. Washington, Lincoln Christian and Victory Christian are always front-runners to earn spots in the final days of the season. That wasn’t the case before the Oklahoma Secondary Schools Activities Association forced Cascia Hall and Lincoln Christian to move up a class after the public-private school debate was resolved.
With that in mind, is Tahlequah at a disadvantage playing in 5A volleyball now?
“You could almost say that, but you really don’t want to give into it,” Tahlequah coach Don Ogden said. “We just have to tailor our game to beat private (schools). We have to play a lot, we have to have some club players, we have to go schedule some really tough teams to play, we have to have a tougher serve — which means we all need to start jump serving — and we’ve got to be able to overcome what (private schools) have naturally because, geographically, they have a disadvantage on us because of where they can play more often.
“We have to work at other things to try and level the playing field, but we’re not going to shy away from them and we’ll give them our best shot when we do run into them.”
Ogden certainly did his part in concocting a difficult schedule. Tahlequah will only be at home five times while mixing in road contests at Bishop Kelley and Catoosa, in addition to tournaments at Catoosa, Coweta and Claremore.
“The way the schedule fell is that a few teams that played us — and we had to go to — last year didn’t return the favor, and that put us in a little bit of a scheduling bind,” Ogden said. “So we had to kind of go searching for some other teams to be able to make that difference up.
“We’re going to go play the schedule in front of us. I think it’s a team that is going to handle playing on the road very well.”
Ogden’s roster is highlighted by Tinnin and fellow senior, Kalie Champlain. The biggest obstacle for the Lady Tigers will be replacing the production of Casey Beaston, who led Tahlequah in front-line production in 2012.
“We have two sophomores that we’re going to plug into those two spots,” Ogden said of the void left by Beaston and Tory Worth. “Alli George...will be playing, and Amanda Milnick — who has moved in from Arizona and is a left-handed middle (blocker) — she’s going to take the other spot.”
Tahlequah will open the season Tuesday at Coweta. The Lady Tigers will debut at home on Thursday against Okay.