Jade Frey didn't see it coming. Jay McAtee did, but not this fast.

It began happening in the second half of last season – the freshmen who McAtee put in the lineup in his first season at Mount Zion benefited from two years playing varsity. A team that started the season 6-7 finished 19-14 – an eight-game improvement from the previous year.

McAtee said he sees a similar level of improvement this year – one that will put the Braves on the level people came to expect from the teams McAtee coached at St. Teresa for 11 years.

“I think we're an elite team,” McAtee said. “I don't hesitate to say that this team can step on the court with anyone in the state and beat them.

“We have our flaws, but they've gotten good and the exciting part is there is another level.”

The players see the same thing, which surprises them.

“Before McAtee got here, we weren't that good and we didn't take a lot of pride in it,” Frey said. “Since he's came in, we've bonded more and really learned how one another played. That's made all the difference.

“That's not something I could picture two years ago. I didn't think we'd get to this point.”

McAtee's daughter Kelsey, a junior, agreed.

“I didn't think we'd come this far, but we've all improved so much,” Kelsey said. “This is our year.”

McAtee said he thought the team would be good in two years, but he said they've progressed past that.

“I don't think I could have fathomed coming this far in 24 months,” McAtee said. “Two years ago, they were really bad. The only teams we were beating were JV teams at the DISC that summer. We struggled to get serves in.”

Junior Megan Vaughn said they weren't prepared for how tough varsity volleyball would be.

“We were used to playing seventh- and eighth-graders,” Vaughn said. “And we didn't get a lot of help from the upperclassmen.”

Two years later, the Braves are deep, tall and talented. And they're no longer freshmen and sophomores playing against juniors and seniors.

“We got beat up the last couple years against some good teams, but as other teams have graduated girls, we've gotten bigger, stronger and more confident,” McAtee said. “We've went from being an easy 'W,' to a team that has a chance to win every night out. I thought they'd be special, but not this special.”

The players said a three-game loss to St. Teresa last year was their first glimpse things were changing.

“My freshman and sophomore years, they killed us and we never thought we'd get to where we could hang with them,” Frey said. “But we battled with them.”

McAtee said his eyes started to open at last year's Riverton Tournament. He became a believer at the Mount Pulaski Tournament to end the regular season.

“That's when I started thinking we could be really good,” McAtee said. “We were playing really well by the end of the season. That boosted my confidence, and their's, too.”

The Braves have depth and experience at every position. Juniors Kelsey McAtee and Megan Vaughn, the team's left-side hitters, are good all-round players. Morgan Rambo, Erin Ripple and Allie Roberts will strike from the right side. Frey and junior Kiley Lane trade off as setters, allowing McAtee to keep the setters in the backcourt. McAtee called junior Lacey Gibbons “an extremely good libero.”

Six-footer Taylor Pruitt and 5-7 Maddy Hart, who McAtee said had the team's best vertical, will play middle. Pressure will be on Pruitt and Hart, seniors who will be counted on to lead the Braves' block.

“For us to be great, they're going to have to play great,” McAtee said. “We have the size, but we've struggled to stop people at the net. To get to the next level, that has to improve.”

But, McAtee and his players agree, passing and hitting is a strength.

“We have good passing, and when it's on, we're pretty much unstoppable,” Frey said.

“They hit so hard,” Gibbons said. “As the libero, I'd much rather be trying to dig the other team than ours.”

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Sports Editor

Sports editor for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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