BUTLER — It’s all about learning and growing together.

Since being named head coach in July, new coach Kent Mitchell and his staff have been going through an expedited “get-acquainted” process.

While Mitchell said the team was about six weeks behind others because of the late start, they have been making progress.

“Their volleyball IQ is increasing daily,” he said. “Their passing, attacking and footwork is getting much better, which allows them to play at a higher level. I am pleased that they listen intently and work hard.”

Seniors Erika Brock and Jessi Gerke will be counted upon to lead a young team.

“They are good leaders and they are very likeable young ladies, which helps them communicate with their teammates,” Mitchell said. “They have also helped me coming in new to the school.”

Leadership comes in many forms, such as helping the new coach find where all of the equipment is stored and that the volleyball team works concessions at football games.

“One thing I preach is everyone should be a leader, helping each other get better every day in practice,” Mitchell said.

“I feel our biggest strength as a program is that all the girls get along and genuinely like each other,” he said. “We are not just varsity and JV; we are a volleyball program.”

Of the 10 players on varsity, only Brock, Gerke, junior McKenna Elzey and sophomores Mataya Bireley and Skyelar Kessler saw substantial minutes in 2018.

Four players — Abbigale Kreidt, Shyan McKinley, Brynn Phillips and Clare Sexton — graduated from last year’s team that finished 9-20 in all matches and 3-8 in Northeast Corner Conference play.

Gerke and Kessler largely split the setter’s role last year, and Elzey also saw time there. Gerke had 125 assists and Kessler had 120. Elzey added 28 helpers.

Brock was third on the team with 76 kills a year ago. Brock led the team with 171 digs last year and Gerke was fourth with 124.

One area Mitchell expects to improve upon is offense.

“We need to continue working on offensive connectivity with the setters and hitters,” he said. “We need to improve on serve receive passing and serving to specific areas of the court.”

Gerke ranked second on the team with 13 aces. Brock had nine aces, Kessler had six and Elzey served five.

Gerke and Kessler are listed as setters, with Elzey able to help as a setter, on defense or as a right-side hitter.

Brock will be an outside hitter with Bireley (25 kills) and freshman Eleanor Neumann. Bireley and Neumann could also be used as right-side hitters.

Senior Breanika Steury and freshman Zoe McBride can be used as a middle or right-side hitters. Sophomore Haleigh Liberty can play as a middle hitter. Sophomore Paige Franz will be counted upon to help on defense.

Mitchell spent nine years as head coach at Homestead, winning three sectional championships. When the Spartans won in 2010, it was the school’s first title in 37 years. Homestead added titles in 2013 and 2014. He was an assistant at Concordia for seven years (1997 to 2004) and head coach for three (2005 to 2007). He has also coached club volleyball since 1996.

“I like that in volleyball you have to have six players on the court that are skilled in every area of the game,” Mitchell said in his introductory story as Eastside’s head coach. “One player cannot do it all. There is a pass, set and an attack, and this all happens in 3-4 seconds, then you are on defense, which is very exciting. There is no slowing down the game like in basketball.”

Ty Bianski, who coached with Mitchell at Concordia and Homestead, will coach the reserve team.

“I am having a lot of fun working with this group of athletes, and I am excited to see how much we can improve by sectionals,” Mitchell said.

Eastside opened the season Saturday against Fairfield and doesn’t play again until it hosts Woodlan on Tuesday, Aug. 27. That starts a busy week that includes a home match with Central Noble on Aug. 29 and the Westview Invitational that Saturday.

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