LAKE TWP. Every year for the past six-plus seasons, the question for 6/7ths of the Federal League’s volleyball teams has been the same: Is this the year?
Josh Mockrel has been at Lake for all of those seasons and this year, the veteran head coach’s Blue Streaks lead the pack of those six teams trying to snap a league winning streak that has surpassed 80 games for the Polar Bears.
Asked how Lake has improved to the tune of a 13-5 start to the season, Mockrel pointed to two developments.
"I would say the biggest step forward came from having a really good offseason. The girls bought into what we’re trying to do here," Mockrel said. "Also, having Hailey Poling, one of best players in league, and getting people to rally around her is big."
Poling, a senior setter, is headed for Duquesne next fall and being both a Division I recruit and a senior leader for a team second in the league standings has put her in a position to be a leader for arguably the most improved team in the Federal League.
Having a team’s setter as its best - and featured - player is rare in volleyball. Often, the headlines and spotlight are reserved for the tall, high-leaping outside hitters who hammer the ball over the next for points, or the long-armed middle blockers who stifle opposing attacks with stuffs at the net.
For Lake, Poling is the pace setter and with a team-high 37 aces, she’s also its most effective server. She leads the team with 166.5 points and a .314 hitting percentage, having committed just 69 errors on the season.
All of that makes her an ideal fit for the Blue Streaks, whose 7-2 league mark is two games off Jackson’s pace this season.
"It’s not as flashy having a setter as your best player," Mockrel said. "Even I sometimes overlook all of the things she does … keeping balls up and her athleticism."
Mockrel noted that having some younger players who are still learning to hit in front of Poling has magnified her importance and Poling’s on-court intelligence and savvy have helped ease those new players into the mix. Having the team’s best player willing to dive on the floor, dig balls and focus on making good passes has set a tone not just for the varsity team, but it has created a winning atmosphere that Mockrel has seen filter down even further.
"It creates a lot of excitement that trickles down even into middle school and the girls there are getting excited," he said.
Amidst all of this, the reality remains that Jackson is undefeated and tops the league once again. Despite a coaching change after the departure of longtime head coach Jeff Walck, the Polar Bears have kept their league winning streak alive, albeit with some close calls.
Heading into the tournament, which Jackson has dominated for more than half a decade and counting, Mockrel describes the Polar Bears as "still the team to beat going into it, with two amazing hitters putting balls away."
For Lake, the gap between itself and Jackson appears to be narrower than at any point in Mockrel’s tenure. On Sept. 18, the Blue Steaks captured the second and third sets of a match at Jackson, pushing the defending league champions to the limit. However, Jackson rallied to win the final two sets and emerge with a crucial win.
Had Lake won that contest, the two would now be tied atop the league standings. As is, Lake must hope for the unlikely, namely that Jackson loses a league match prior to the two teams’ rematch Oct. 11 at Lake, in order for the Blue Streaks to have a chance at sharing the league title.
Even if that doesn’t happen, a strong finish to the regular season should send Lake into the sectional tournament with an immense amount of momentum. Passing the 14-win mark would give the Blue Streaks their most wins under Mockrel and although the program won back-to-back league titles shortly before he took over as head coach, a feat that would add to a season that is shaping up to be a large step forward.
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