YAKIMA, Wash. — In many instances, when a program, no matter how successful in the past, endures an extensive overhaul of its roster and brings on a new coaching staff, there would be cause for concern.
That’s what’s happened with West Valley’s volleyball program this year but for new coach Jill O’Brien, there’s no sense of dread.
Rather, O’Brien displays a high level of confidence in her young roster. That could seem a bit odd but there’s one word to explain it — tradition.
“West Valley has always been strong. You go into a program like that knowing there’s high expectations,” said O’Brien, who had been the Rams head coach for five years in the early 2000s prior to the arrival of Katie Hinckley, who stepped down after last season.
“We have a tradition here,” she continued. “They (the players) know how hard they need to work to live up to that reputation and the expectations.”
That’s not lost on the players.
“Even though we lost so many (players), she (O’Brien) still holds us to the same high standards and she has confidence in us,” said setter Mary Teske, one of just two seniors on the team that will feature seven freshmen and sophomores.
O’Brien witnessed that commitment from the outset when she began their offseason program in June with a boot camp directed by Karin Kupp.
“I wasn’t sure how many would turn out but we had 40 show up,” she said. “From the get-go, they all showed up and they’ve worked hard. I’ve got nothing to complain about.”
Another plus is a high level of familiarity, with O’Brien having coached virtually all these players during her time as coach of West Valley’s eighth grade team or through club volleyball.
In addition, there is a comfort level with her assistant coach, Linnea Schlieman, formerly Braun, who played for O’Brien during her first stint as Rams head coach.
“Almost all of us had O’Brien in eighth grade so she’s not new,” Teske said. “We all had a relationship with her so it was a smooth transition.
“We like having those two as coaches.”
Even with those positives, O’Brien knows the Rams face a tough task extending their state streak to 10 straight this fall, particularly in a league that features a Wenatchee team most coaches believe to be the favorite, along with a strong, experienced team at Eisenhower and a solid Eastmont program.
That’s because West Valley must replace CBBN 2018 player of the year, Shea Rubright, now at the University of Minnesota, and five other first team all-league players off a team that won the Class 4A state title — West Valley’s third and seventh state trophy in that nine-year run.
One thing that should ease the transition is that O’Brien will essentially be using the same system Hinckley employed.
“We run a lot of the same stuff,” Teske said. “It’s hard trying to teach some new stuff, but everyone’s working hard and we’re always trying to get better.”
“Why come in and change things in a program that’s won state titles? That’d be pretty stupid,” she said, laughing, before adding that the players have been open to everything she’s thrown at them.
“They already know a lot of things. (And) if we want to fix or change something, they’ve been really responsive. With a young team, they soak everything up.”
O’Brien said she likes what she’s seen so far and is confident that the Rams will be in the mix at the end but also understands this is a work in progress as her young group develops into a cohesive unit.
“I think we look good, but I want to see us against other teams. Are we as good as I think we are?” she said. “They know there’ll be competition. I expect us to do good things and they’re all working hard.”
Which is why O’Brien is so excited to take on this challenge.
“People said who wants to step into this? I said, ‘I’ll do it,’” she said with a laugh before turning serious. “It’s fun because I know most of the kids. I’ve not been this happy coaching volleyball in many, many years.
“It hasn’t seemed like work.”