by Max Foster
roundup staff reporter
With star, outside hitter Tori Wilbanks sidelined with a knee injury, fellow Lady Longhorn volleyball players are being asked to step up their court efforts.
"Not having her for the season would be a huge blow but this is a hard-working, coachable team that has great attitudes and potential," coach Arnold Stonebrink said. "Of course, the number-one priority is to get her (Wilbanks) knee taken care of."
Although the senior stalwart has not yet practiced with the team, she might be available soon.
"She is being treated and her knee is getting better," said her father, Duke Wilbanks. Surgery was at one time considered, but has since been ruled out, he added.
Until she is back on the court, the slack left by Tori Wilbanks in practice is being picked up by three-year varsity starter and senior Brooke Cannon.
"She is probably the clear-cut leader. As our setter, or quarterback, she does very well," Stonebrink said.
When Cannon is not playing high school volleyball, she is a member of the Valley-based Club Red 17-years-and-under team.
Cannon says her goal this season is to earn a college scholarship and she hopes to attract recruiters' attention with her play on both the high school and club teams.
In addition to having Cannon on the team, Stonebrink can call upon veterans Jade Heglie and Mollee Lee to provide all-important leadership.
Heglie will play the libero, or defensive specialist, position and Lee will man the outside hitter slot.
Stonebrink is among those prep coaches who are a firm believer in having the libero player -- a position that is only in its second year of existence in high school volleyball.
"It really solidifies the back row and makes the team defense much better," Stonebrink said.
According to a prep volleyball rulebook, the libero is a specialized defensive player, identified by a different color uniform, restricted to perform as a back-row player. She is not allowed to complete an attack hit from anywhere if at the moment of contact, the ball is entirely higher than the top of the net. The libero may not serve, block, or attempt to block.
Not all coaches use a libero.
Sophomore Jenna Robertson, who played outside hitter on last year's freshmen team, is among the newcomers the coach anticipates will contribute to the varsity effort.
This year, however, she has been converted to middle hitter.
"With her great athletic ability, vertical leap and reach -- she has very long arms -- we converted her over the summer," Stonebrink said. "She made the transition beautifully.
"She already was a tremendous blocker and her hitting and timing with Brooke on the quick sets are really coming along."
Stonebrink predicts his sophomore standout will "turn a lot of heads this year."
Robertson is the younger sister of one of the finest all-around athletes to ever don a Lady Longhorn uniform.
In the late 1990s, Stephanie Robertson was a nationally top-10 ranked heptathlete -- an athlete who competes in seven track and field events, including 200-meter and 800-meter runs, 100-meter hurdles, shot put, javelin throw, high jump, and long jump.
In 2000, she was named to in the Payson Roundup's Best of the Decade.
Also expected to star for the Lady Horns is Hannah Armenta, who might be better known for her powerful hitting exploits in softball than for her volleyball accomplishments.
"She has improved dramatically," Stonebrink said. "She has always had the ability, but was very inconsistent and erratic in her hitting."
The coach said that playing on the Club Rim team during the offseason, "really enabled her to elevate her game.
"She has great vertical leap on her hitting approach and she consistently spikes the ball hard and in."
Club Rim, which advanced last summer to the Volleyball Festival in Reno, was also the offseason training ground for Wilbanks and Heglie.
"The team was a great asset," Stonebrink said. "The girls who played for Rim all season long all have shown great improvement."
While the Lady Longhorns are rounding into shape in preseason practices, Stonebrink has kept on eye focused on other teams in the East region.
He anticipates long time court powers Snowflake and Blue Ridge to be the teams to beat.
"No surprises there," he said.
Coaching alongside Stonebrink in the PHS program this season are Judy Perhman on the junior varsity level and Trevor Creighton with the freshmen.
The regular season begins Aug. 29 in Wilson Dome against the Globe Tigers. Game time is 6 p.m.
Among the highlights of the season will be the Payson Invitational Sept. 1 and 2 in Wilson Dome.