JACKSON TWP. If the Jackson volleyball team’s season is going to go to Dayton this fall, the journey is going to start in a small, muggy elementary school gym.
Dayton is the site of the state tournament each November and it’s a target for the Polar Bears every season, something of which senior Sarah Benson is well aware. She’s been part of the program when it’s made trips to the state final four and was also there last season when her team fell just short of that mark.
As the push resumes in pursuit of the program’s first state title, Benson and her teammates packed into the gym at Strausser Elementary School on a recent morning, sweating and shuffling in pursuit of improvement in the NST program the team does each year.
“We’ve been going since the end of June. We have 16 sessions, so twice a week for eight weeks,” Benson said. “I like it because it challenges us as a team and it makes you work hard for the girls next to you and at the end of a session when we’re doing wall sets or push ups and everybody wants to quit, you just want to keep going to do it for the girls next to you.”
NST has grown in the area in recent years and many Federal League teams across all sports use it because of its benefits in terms of speed and agility. The main gym at Jackson High School goes through a period of closure each summer to be cleaned, so the NST work for the volleyball team made the move to Strausser.
Benson didn’t attend the school growing up - Amherst was where she spent her elementary school days - but doesn’t mind being in a smaller gym instead of the spacious confines of the squad’s normal home.
“It’s definitely different than being in the high school in a normal setting, but I think it’s good because it feels like everybody’s closer and everybody’s working and getting sweaty and it’s not like you’re all the way across the gym from somebody,” Benson said. “No matter if we’re in different groups, we’re all together.”
Not far away, head coach Jeff Walck laughed and said he was more than ready to return to the high school gym, but until it reopens, the Strausser gym is ground zero for the Polar Bears’ offseason work.
The NST sessions typically have 40 or so players broken down into groups, doing drills such as shuffling through rows of cones laterally, pausing to stoop down and touch specific ones as a way to improve agility, mobility and flexibility. For Benson, the sessions are also good because they bring the team together and if any players aren’t working out as much on their own, they get the challenges they need to get into better shape before games begin.
With games just a month away, the season feels both near and far for the senior setter. On one hand, there is still time left in the summer before books, classes and tests return and on the other hand, there’s a lot of work to do in what seems like a short amount of time prior to volleyball season.
“It still kind of seems far away. We have tryouts next week, which seems super close, but we’ve been scrimmaging for the past two weeks, so it still seems far away, but it’s definitely creeping up,” Benson said.
With what remains of her summer, she and her fellow seniors are eager to see the roster come together so they can have a better idea of what the rotation will look like and how the Polar Bears will stack up not only against the rest of the Federal League, but against the teams they will likely face if they’re going to accomplish their goals of a state title.
“Just getting used to … every year, it’s like a new team even if you only lose two seniors, it’s still a new team, so just getting used to everybody, bringing the underclassmen on and getting them used to the pace of how varsity’s going to be and just getting everybody on the same page,” Benson said of her plans for the rest of summer.
Getting to Dayton will take a lot of hours, miles and floor burns, the first of which have already been sustained in the same elementary school gym where some members of the team started school years ago.
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