JOHNSTOWN - After back-to-back seasons that culminated with trips to the Class B final four of New York State Public High School Athletic Association volleyball tournament, fans would think a third-straight trip would be the first thing on the minds of the Johnstown Lady Bills as they opened practice Monday at Johnstown High School.
However, coach Heather McGuire said while it may be in the back of their minds, it was not the main focus heading into the first day of practice.
"I am going to remind them it is a clean slate going into this season," McGuire said before Monday's practice. "I am not even going to mention states. As a player, one year we made it to states and we totally focused on going back but totally self-destructed during a crucial game and never got back there. So I definitely know what happens when you look too far ahead. We will not say the "S-word" for quite some time. Right now, our focus is on our first scrimmage, which is against Shenendehowa and Niskayuna, two very good teams. During the season, I will just keep reminding them about the next game. I think they will stay focused but I will remind them to stay in the moment and make sure we are good now and it will happen on its own."
Johnstown varsity volleyball player Annie Stock, right, looks on as coach Heather McGuire goes over a drill Monday on the first day of practice at Johnstown High School. (The Leader-Herald/James A. Ellis)
There is some unfinished business instead that McGuire said the Lady Bills would focus on before shifting concentration to the postseason.
"That [postseason] is a long ways away," she said. "I would say our unfinished business is the league. They want to take on Queensbury who has really been the leader in the Foothills. Before even looking at the Class B tournament, you have to be ready for the top-ranked Foothills teams. I know they look at Queensbury and South Glens Falls as the perennial top teams. Gloversville and Broadalbin-Perth or any of the Foothills schools are not gimme matches for anybody. Again, the best part of having a successful season, other people want to be successful too. So it just brings the competition up also."
The Lady Bills finished the 2012 season tied for second with an 11-3 league record, taking Queensbury to five games before falling to the league champs. Johnstown did defeat the Spartans during the season at the Power of Pink tournament at Queensbury.
Although the Lady Bills lost two key elements to their success over the past two seasons to graduation - Zara Hyde and Liz Hayward - they are not rebuilding, just reloading.
Johnstown will again be led by Foothills Council first team and Class-B first-team all-state player Annie Stock along with Foothills Council second team all-stars Alyssa Nellis and Brianne O'Rourke and Jerica Holland, who was honorable mention on the 2012 Foothills Council squad.
"Annie went to a national showcase in Louisville, Kentucky, last year," McGuire said. "She is ready. She has seen the top talent in the country and knows exactly what the top strong volleyball players look like. She is an intricate role model for our team."
While Stock will draw the focus of opponents on the court, as they showed last year, the Lady Bills have multiple weapons to get the job done.
Hannah Breda, O'Rourke, Nellis and Holland were among players who stepped up their games to contribute to Johnstown's success.
"Volleyball is a sport where one person can't do it all," McGuire said. "Yes Annie can hit the ball really hard, but teams can stop her, eventually, or at least slow her down. We need other people to step up. That is the thing about volleyball, you can't do it alone. I remind them of that and they know it. The thing is, when someone is doing something great on the court next to you, it does motivate you to do great things as well. Playing with great players makes everyone stronger."
Keeping the players on track and focused during the season may be a challenge for McGuire but she is confident that when it comes time to take the court for the first game of the season, it will not be a problem.
"I know the girls understand how much work it takes to get to the state tournament and they want to keep that tradition of Johnstown volleyball going," she said. "I know a lot of the girls have worked hard this summer to be ready and all of their focus will be there. The girls work hard together and that is what is important. To see something happen one time is a pretty strong motivator. Then to see last year's group do it again has this year's group saying 'Why can't we?'"