Wilkinson sees St. Paul's as a team for all seasons

On High Schools

High Schools

September 18, 2005|By MILTON KENT

YOU'D usually have an easier time getting wisdom teeth out of a coach than getting her to declare how good her team can be before the leaves change color.

But St. Paul's volleyball coach Kelli Wilkinson isn't waiting until it gets cold to let the world, or at least this corner of it, know how much talent the Gators have and where they could end up.

"We should be in the championship," Wilkinson said last week. "I have a really good team. I'm really excited about this team. I've been excited for about a year."

Wilkinson, in her fourth year at St. Paul's, said she started getting excited about this year after the Gators lost to the Institute of Notre Dame in the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland's A Conference tournament semifinals.

Wilkinson knew she would not only have five seniors and four juniors returning, but that she also would have perhaps as much height as any team in the area, with seven players 5 feet 11 or taller on the roster.

"So far, with blocking and hitting, it's pretty much always going over the net," said senior Blake Hargest, who is 5-11. "Even if you stand there, you hit it and it's going over. I think it definitely helps to have the height. We've never had it before. It's definitely an advantage."

One of the tallest St. Paul's players is one of the youngest, freshman Bailey Webster. Wilkinson immediately moved the 6-2 Webster into the starting lineup, and if bloodlines are any indication, it was a smart move. Bailey is the kid sister of Brooks Webster, an All-Metro hitter at IND who is now a freshman at Alabama.

"She [Bailey Webster] played club last year," Wilkinson said. "She's starting for me as a freshman. I have five seniors, and that speaks volumes to what level she's at right now. I'm excited for the next four years for my program."

The Gators have bounced back to win three straight matches after a heartbreaking, season-opening road loss to No. 6 Towson in five games. What made the Towson loss even more galling was that St. Paul's won the first two games and had a lead in the third before things went south.

"We know that we have the potential to play with a top team," Hargest said. "Towson's very good. They're ranked No. 6. Our goal was to be ranked, to have a great season and get to the championships at the end of the tournament.

"The games were so close and they were so competitive. I think we now know that we have the potential to play with a top team like that and we should carry that out throughout the rest of the season and compete with the top teams in our league."

Indeed, Wilkinson is looking at the Towson match as the proverbial "win within a loss," with the Gators getting a chance to see what it will take to win a title down the road.

"I think it [playing against tough competition early] sets a tone for the rest of the year," Wilkinson said. "I love strong competition. I'm a very competitive person. It was a great gauge for me. It was like here are the private school teams that are ranked, and there aren't many.

"It's a good gauge for the rest of the season for me to say, `Look, you guys played with these girls and we're right there with them. This is what I expect and this is what we're capable of.' "

That was Wilkinson's theory in moving St Paul's up to the A Conference last year after it had won the C Conference three years ago and the B title the year after that. There'd be no way to really know how good the team could be until it was tested against the best competition.

"To me, it's not really about winning," Wilkinson said. "I want them to play the best competition. If we would have stayed in the B, it wouldn't have been enough competition for my girls. To me, you get better playing with and against better players.

"I knew we wouldn't win the A [last year]. We weren't there yet. But that's where we needed to be and we did very well. To lose in the semifinals, that's where we should be. I want them to play against better players, to say, `Wow, this is what it's like to play against the big girls, so to speak.' "

But now, with so many big girls on the roster, it may be time to see if St Paul's has the stuff it takes to win on the big stage.

"We think so," Hargest said. "We don't know what other people are thinking, but we definitely have high expectations for ourselves. We definitely would love to be able to have three different conference championships. That's the goal that we have had since I got here as a freshman."

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