MOUNT ZION — "Cautiously optimistic."
Those are the words Mount Zion volleyball coach Jay McAtee uses when discussing his team's upcoming season.
McAtee is underselling the hype that surrounds the Braves this year because on paper they could be something exceptional.
Last season the group won the program's first sectional title in school history and advanced to the Class 3A super-sectionals before losing to Belleville Althoff.
From that collection of players, the only key offensive loss was graduating senior and outside hitter Hayden Englebrecht.
The Braves return senior setter Ali Vaughn, who recorded 932 assists to an elite group of hitters including junior Karlee McAtee (287 kills), senior Dayna Kennedy (260 kills), Reiley Drake (231 kills) and senior Kaitlyn Lillpop (181 kills).
McAtee, a seven time winner of the Herald & Review Macon County Volleyball Coach of the Year, has rarely seen a group of players like this year's team.
"I think the team has the potential to be something special. It is one of those teams that you get once every 15 years," he said.
McAtee is also aware that the Braves have a bullseye on their backs.
"The teams that will play us try to tell the girls that we are pretty much their Super Bowl — they want to knock off Mount Zion," McAtee said. "We try to push (our team) to continue to work hard and not underestimate the talent that they have. They are a talented group of girls, but on any given day somebody can get beat and they have learned that before."
The season-ending loss in the super-sectionals was a learning experience for the Braves.
"The girls learned what level they need to be at to get to that final stretch of state or super-sectionals," McAtee said. "They have set their goals high, which they should, but I think that they learned a lot. We’ve got seven seniors on the team now, so the talent is there, the potential is there. It’s about staying focused."
The Braves are also ahead of where they were last season.
"I think we are doing a lot better than what we were doing in summer league," Vaughn said. "I think we have definitely improved a lot through that by just talking to each other, communicating and that kind of comes with practice and team bonding."
The bond is nearly unbreakable between the team's seniors, who have played together since middle school when their team won a seventh-grade state title.
"We have been chasing that ever since it happened," Vaughn said. "I feel like this year we are all still believing that we can go far."
As the setter, Vaughn must continually feed the hungry group of hitters, a skill she has mastered.
"Ali has played at a higher club level for numerous years and in her mindset she’s got enough court sense to know who is struggling and who is hot," McAtee said. "She knows where she needs to go."
The Braves players are also unselfish enough to admit when the kills should go to someone else.
"It depends on the hitter, but some will be like, ‘Don’t set me. I’m not doing well right now," Vaughn said. "Some you will see it on their face that they aren’t confident. I’ve sort of got to see that and then set someone else who I feel confident will put the ball away and get us a point."
While the Braves are deep with veterans, two sophomores will also take their place on the court.
Outside hitter Emily Cole will fill Englebrecht's open spot and Caitlyn Maley steps in as libero in place of her sister, senior Courtney Maley, who is sidelined with a shoulder injury.
Their opponents will surely test them, but the Braves will learn just as much from teammates pushing them forward.
"They are at the point that they don’t take things personally, they are willing to work together, they are willing to work hard, they are willing to have fun," McAtee said. "They are at the point where they are learning to push each other more. I think they can have success if they stay focused and bring it every night."