Caitlyn Neal, outside hitter

Amy McNew didn’t think long. The first-year Lady Tigers volleyball coach said she has no complaints about her team as it prepares for next week’s season opener.

“To be honest, I’m just really happy with what’s going on. I don’t have anything to complain about,” McNew said.

Then she paused.

“That might change after the first match,” she said.

A five-year assistant to Debbie James, who retired after last season, McNew inherited a veteran team that returns all but one starter. Unlike a new coach to the district, she also had the advantage of working with the team and knowing the players from her time as an assistant.

Those facts made it a smooth transition as McNew took the reigns of the program that had been under James’ guidance the previous 15 years.

“Usually the first week you have to come in and go over fundamentals,” McNew said. “We just went right into the advanced stuff. It’s been a blessing because we’ve really been able to get ahead of the game.”

The Lady Tigers’ veteran group, which reached the district championship match last season, is led by seniors Erica Keeney and Sarah Pierce. The duo are three-year starters.

Tory Burgess rejoined the volleyball team after playing softball last season. She and returning starters Kaitlyn Kell and Lainey Casper complete the senior group.

Sophomore Alexa Ichord, who started many matches as a freshman, round out the returning varsity cast. Junior Haylee Kell also spent time in the starting lineup.

Juniors Lauren Hoover and Caitlyn Neal round out the varsity roster.

Pierce, who led the Lady Tigers with 309 assists last season, is making the transition from setter to middle hitter under McNew. She replaces departed senior Amber Honig, who led the team in kills a year ago.

Pierce had 143 kills and 41 blocks last year. She also led the team with 34 aces.

“She’s one of the most athletic girls we have on the team, and that’s the most athletic position on the court,” McNew said of Pierce. “You have to be able to move laterally well and get on and off the net quickly. They have to cover a lot of ground on defense in the back row.

“She was a real obvious fit for that position.”

Keeney, a mainstay at middle hitter since her sophomore season, was Houston’s leader with 79 blocks in 2009. She ranked second in kills (196) and aces (33).

McNew said Keeney has focused on her role as a leader in her senior season.

“She’s become more of a vocal leader this year, which is what I waned her to do,” McNew said.

Kaitlyn Kell, Casper and Neal are the team’s outside hitters. Ichord, Burgess and Haylee Kell will set. Hoover is the Lady Tigers’ defensive specialist.

When asked about her team’s potential weaknesses, McNew said she had not seen many potential problems thus far.

“I’ve been really impressed with how they’ve been working. I don’t see any major things,” she said. “They’ve been serving great, passing well, playing great defense.”

When she was hired, McNew said she believed she inherited an athletic team. She was more focused on her players’ mental approach. She said it is no longer an issue.

“Confidence is really turning into one of our strengths,” McNew said. “They are starting to believe they can do it. That’s more than half the battle.”

The 2010 Lady Tigers will make their public debut at Monday’s annual scrimmage. It begins with a fund-raising Mexican dinner at 5 p.m. in the high school cafeteria.

The season opener is the following night (Tuesday) at rival Licking. After another road game at Cuba, Houston plays its home opener Sept. 7 against Summersville.

McNew said her team wouldn’t look fundamentally different than those coached by James.

“I just hope that they play a little more relaxed and look like they are having fun out there,” she said.

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