Making connections, winning volleyball matches

Overlake girls responding well to challenges.

When a connection is made, stellar things will happen.

It could start with a friendship, and then when following the bouncing volleyball onto the court, there’s a pass, set, kill and screams of support. Overlake’s players have been excelling in all facets of the game and team culture that had the Owls off to a 3-0 start in 1A Emerald City League play and 6-2 overall at press time.

“The biggest thing I’ve learned is how to get along with people of all ages. As one of the only seniors, I’ve really branched out in my community with the help of this program and all of these girls, meeting them and driving them around places, getting to know them,” said setter and co-captain Jenn Willson, who is thriving in her leadership role this season. She’s learned about commitment and confidence during her four years with the Owls and is sharing her experiences with her teammates.

Last year, the Owls won the league title with an 11-0 record and advanced to their first state tournament at the Yakima Valley SunDome, where they lost twice on the first day to end their season with a 15-3 overall mark.

However, this month, the Owls returned to the SunDome and defeated Kiona-Benton, a team that knocked the locals out of state, at the SunDome Volleyball Festival. Overlake was ecstatic to beat Kiona-Benton and tie for third in its 32-team pool.

“I think when they’re challenged, they respond well,” said second-year head coach Justice Magraw. “We’re definitely off to a good start, and I think they know it’s a long road ahead. We’ve gotten a lot better from where we were last year. I’m excited to see what they do this season.”

Magraw played volleyball at Redmond High until she graduated in 2012 and then played at the University of Washington. During her UW years, she learned “how mentally engaged you have to be all the time to make changes; how important it is to understand the people around you and to work well with them,” she said.

The coach is instilling those lessons into her tight-knit Overlake squad, which consists of six sophomores, three freshmen and four upperclassmen. Top players are setter Willson (5-foot-5), sophomore outside hitter Sydney Goad (5-foot-7), junior outside/middle hitter Marusia Levanidova (5-foot-9), freshman outside hitter/middle blocker Diya Mishra (5-foot-10) and sophomore right side/middle hitter Ivy Haight (5-foot-11).

Communication and quick thinking are other keys to volleyball success that the Owls are working on this season, Magraw said.

“In a game like volleyball, because the ball gets touched so often and so quickly, you have to solve problems faster than, I think, really any other sport. You just gotta see and go,” she added.

Added Levanidova: “We work hard to keep our energy going and keep each other accountable to stay checked into the game and being mentally focused and mentally tough to keep going.”

Levanidova sees herself as being an energetic and vocal force to help thrust the team in a position direction if things get into a frenzy.

“I’d like to think that I’m one of the people to try and just get that one pass to get us going again or get that one hit that gets us excited again,” she said.

While Levanidova describes the “amazing feeling” of nailing a kill that splits the defenders and rattles the floor, Willson slaps her teammate’s hand and smiles.

“To get that perfect hit, you need a really good pass and a really good set. In order for that to happen, you need to have a lot of communication and a lot of connectedness on the team,” Levanidova said.

Willson feels that as a setter, she’s the transition between the defense and the offense. It’s a privilege to lift the ball into her hitters’ kill zone and watch them leap and smash the ball, she said.

“I love my position because I get to feel the connection and be the connection between each play and each point,” Willson said. “Helping cheer them on between each touch is phenomenal. There’s nothing like it after a great kill.”