DALE CITY Coaches for the NOVA Junior Olympic volleyball team spent the summer trying to convince Katie Oakes that she should become a setter.
Evangel Christ-ian’s 6-foot junior certainly has the height and the touch to effectively fill that role, but right now she’s clearly more valuable finishing a play rather than starting one.
While setter may be a position Oakes winds up playing in college, the defending state champion Eagles prefer to line her up in the middle of their offense and let her swing away.
It’s worked pretty well the past two seasons and, on Saturday, Oakes proved once again that Evangel Christian is pretty tough to beat when she’s swatting the ball.
After improving her hitting and setting skills with NOVA’s 16-&-under club team, Oakes returned to school with a new weapon this fall: a back-row spike. As if trying to defend Oakes on the front row isn’t enough of a challenge, now opposing teams have to deal with her on all six rotations.
That proved to be too difficult a task for would-be challengers at the annual Evangel Back To School Tournament.
Oakes had 64 kills in six matches to earn MVP honors for the second straight year and the unbeaten Eagles captured first place at the eight-team competition with a 15-3, 15-11 championship match victory over Carroll Christian.
“It’s exciting, but MVP doesn’t mean as much to me as some other people,” Oakes said. “It’s a team thing for me.”
Teamwork has been a staple of Evangel’s success on the volleyball court for more than a decade. Even before Oakes came along, the Eagles were a nationally-ranked team. They reached their first national tournament in 1990 and wound up qualifying four times in six years a run that culminated with a runner-up finish in 1996.
Evangel Christian (6-0) is still a team with championship aspirations, but that quest only begins with Oakes.
The Eagles also have a record-setting setter in Oakes’ close friend Terri Slade. The chemistry there is one reason this season’s goal is to improve on last year’s 23-5 record.
“Without Terri and without that first pass I wouldn’t even get to hit,” Oakes said. “We win because we play as a team.”
That was evident on Saturday. The Eagles swept three pool play games against Temple Baptist (11-7, 11-8); Fresta Valley (11-0, 11-7) and Carroll Christian (11-1, 11-9) and then returned from a two-hour break to win three consecutive single-elimination matches.
A quarterfinal round contest against Dale City rival Heritage Christian was Evangel’s only close call of the day. Behind the powerful outside hitting of junior Diana DiFilipo, Heritage won the opener of that match, 15-13.
That game was the only loss of the competition for the Eagles, who advanced to the semifinals by winning the final two games, 15-8, 15-6.
“We were falling asleep. I don’t know what happened,” Slade said. “I think it kind of threw us off sitting around.
“It keeps us more consistent and keeps our energy level up if we continue right to the next match.”
Once the Eagles got going, no one in the gym could stop them. Especially once Oakes began punching spikes through from the back row.
“I’ve been working with it since junior Olympics, but it just took off at this tournament,” she said. “This is the first time I’ve been consistent with it.”
Oakes was just part of the problem the rest of the field faced. Junior outside hitter Danni Howe, Slade and junior middle hitter Amanda Leatch were also named to the all-tournament team.
Howe, who attended the George Mason University summer camp to work on her hitting, had 11 kills, while Leatch continued to make an impressive return from shoulder surgery with 16 kills.
“As long as we get good passes, we can kill the ball,” Slade said.
Slade, a four-year starter who is closing in on a new school career assists record, set up 54 kills on Saturday and the Eagles also received tremendous back row play from junior Lindsay Rizzo, sophomore Amy Martin and eighth-grader Jill Lee.
Wearing their new lightning-streak uniforms that Oakes and Howe picked out of a magazine, the Eagles ousted Engleside Christian, 15-4, 15-13, in the semifinals before sweeping two-time tournament runner-up Carroll Christian, 15-3, 15-11, in the finals.
“Carroll’s a good team, extremely good and competitive,” Howe said. “We just wanted to win and play well as a team.”