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Oak Glen Seeks Repeat

NEW MANCHESTER — After Oak Glen seemingly cruised to a state volleyball championship a season ago, head coach Morgan Poling wanted the new group coming in this year to toughen up and face more adversity.

For starters, the second-year coach beefed up the schedule. The Golden Bears felt early adversity when they dropped five straight contests after beginning 4-3.

There were plenty of ups and downs, including missing out on the OVAC tournament, but all of it led up to Oak Glen defending its title on Friday in Charleston.

“Coming off a Cinderella story last year, there were high expectations for this year,” Poling said. “As a program, we always have high expectations for our players and coaches. But, losing five straight games at the beginning of the season, that was a lot to take in.

“Our team did a great job of pulling together and digging deep and never giving up. That adversity is what got us to this moment.”

No, the Golden Bears are not the same team from 2019. They lost six seniors, including West Virginia University freshman Skye Stokes. Even with that, winning another state title was the ultimate goal from the beginning.

“When you have a whole new group of girls coming in, I still we think we had a lot of potential. We may lose a few games, but I still feel like we could have a tougher mentality and be able to face a difficult team and be flexible,” senior outside hitter Alayna Kranis said. “One of the good things Morgan’s been teaching us is to face those challenges head on, and really that should push you to be a team more than anything. When you’re down is when you should talk the most and push each other.”

“Losing all of the seniors from last year was really tough,” senior setter Jadyn Smith said. “Coming back on the court also was tough, but we overcame that, too. Family is everything on the court. If you can talk with everyone, I think you have an outstanding team, whether you lost six seniors from the year before or you gain some.”

Oak Glen is seeded third in the Class AA tourney and will face No. 6 seed Point Pleasant at 10:30 a.m. The victor then will challenge the winner of the No. 2 Philip Barbour-No. 7 Weir High contest (Oak Glen is 4-0 against the Red Riders this season). Shady Spring, who fell to the Golden Bears in the championship last year, is the top seed.

“Especially being undefeated last year, there’s always been a target on our back,” Kranis said. “We’re also the returning state champions. I think as long as we can keep our minds focused, we know what we have to do. All we have to worry about is each other, and we have to listen to each other. As long as we can do those things, that’s all that matters.”

Poling said being the third seed fits this team. When she went over the seedings in her mind, she had her squad third.

“I feel like we’re going into the state tournament with people looking at us because we did win last year,” Smith said. “I know Shady Spring probably is wanting to play us again and take us out.

“I feel very fortunate that COVID has not hit us yet. I don’t think it will before the state championship, but anything could happen in the next few days.”

The coronavirus pandemic did affect the regional tournament Saturday when Frankfort, Keyser and Berkeley Springs were not allowed to participate. Oak Glen won the regional title but would have made state even with a loss.

“I don’t like the circumstances we’re having to deal with this season. It’s not a fair season, but we definitely deserve a chance at state,” Smith said.

Smith is one of the senior leaders on the team, along with Kranis and middle hitter Rory McNutt. As well as some juniors and sophomores, they knew they had to step up and overcome the loss of the six seniors. It took Smith a little longer because she missed the first few weeks with an ankle injury but did not miss a beat when she returned.

“Jadyn and I have played forever together,” Kranis said. “We used to play travel together, too. It’s really nice having her there, especially after her ankle injury and then coming back. She’s been to every game even when she was hurt. I’m just really happy I get to out my senior year with her.”

Arguably the biggest improvement has come from Kranis. She was a regular starter last year but did not always make the headline. This season, it’s as if every game revolved around how she performed.

“She stepped up big time for us last year. She had big plays and moments when we needed them,” Poling said. “This year, she has done that every single game consistently. She’s definitely a player our team looks to put the ball down when we need to put it down.”

Poling added that McNutt also has stepped up. Other girls mentioned include defensive specialist Teya Hall, Sydney Smith (Jadyn’s younger sister) and Ashlyn Six, who is just a freshman.

“Coming in, I knew that (Six) had a lot of potential. She’s really stepped up her game every single day,” Poling said. “She never takes reps off, and that’s what put her in the varsity staring lineup as a freshman. She really concentrates on what she’s doing and really works hard.

“Hall has done a great job defensively. She has stepped up in the back row and makes big plays when they need to be made. She also has stepped up as leader, so she’s really fun to watch.

“Sydney debuted in the state championship for a few points as a freshman when McKayla Goodlin went down with an injury. Sydney has really stepped up and earned that libero spot as a sophomore. She’s also a fun one to watch.”

Only who is dressing for the Golden Bears is the main difference from last year. The energy, confidence and toughness are the same. They will see how far they have come along in less than a year and keep the tradition strong when Friday comes around.

“We’ve just been preaching to the team to stay calm, relax and have some fun,” Poling said. “I think when people talk about the state tournament, they talk about pressure. Pressure is what makes it fun. If you go out there, play your best volleyball and have fun, that’s all you can really ask for.”

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