Volleyball: Armstrong, LeBlanc and Wallner lead Sequim toward state

Armstrong, LeBlanc and Wallner lead Sequim toward state

SHS volleyball seniors

SHS volleyball seniors

 

It’s a story Jennie Webber Heilman has heard before. There’s a new girl in town and she can really play. Got lots of game. Can serve and pass and hit pretty well, too. A varsity-level player, a sure thing.

In two-and-a-half decades of coaching, it’s a pretty common story. Once in a while the player turns out to be a starter but most times, less than advertized.

That’s why talk of a certain talented setter/hitter newly moved from Nevada to Sequim in the summer of 2013 didn’t get the coach’s heart rate going too much.

An incoming junior, Alyse Armstrong turned out to be exactly what the Sequim coach was hearing about.

“She started coming to the open gyms right away,” Webber Heilman recalls. “The girls noticed right away. ‘Oh, we’ve got a lefty … who can hit! Who can hit pretty hard! And block!’”

Along with senior Alexas Besand, Armstrong became one of Sequim’s top offensive threats, leading the team with 76 kills in the regular season and 47 in the postseason, and led the team with 276 assists in 19 games. She was second on the team with 36 aces and the gaudy numbers led to an all-Olympic League first team honor.

It was a bit of a revelation for Webber Heilman, who already knew she had several key pieces in place for this year’s version of the Wolves. Despite losing key veterans Besand and Hannah Hudson, the Sequim coach now had a trio of seniors with a bevy of experience to rely upon.

This fall, Armstrong and teammates Emily Wallner and Emma LeBlanc have the Wolves setting sights on a deep run at the class 2A state tourney.

The gym rat

The first time Emma LeBlanc hit the court for an “A” league coed game at Peninsula College, the young Sequim player got a rude awakening – in the form of a hard smash right into her face.

Think it deterred her from playing? Not so much.

“I think (playing at that level) has really helped,” LeBlanc says. ‘We play on a men’s (higher) net, so we’re hitting up. It’s also really good for defense. Then men can hit really hard.”

LeBlanc is no stranger to the volleyball court. Her mother, Nancy LeBlanc, has coached volleyball for years, as a junior varsity and middle school coach in

Sequim and at one time a varsity coach in Port Angeles.

“She’s grown up in a gym,” Webber Heilman says.

“Volleyball makes me happy,”

LeBlanc says. “It’s a lot of things. It’s the adrenaline. It’s the ability to do these skills. It’s the teamwork.”

The first four years she played on organized school teams, from middle school through freshman year — when she split time between junior varsity and varsity squads — LeBlanc was a setter.

That changed when Armstrong came on the scene.

“Setting wasn’t really my thing,” LeBlanc recalls. “When Alyse came, it was, ‘Yay, I don’t have to set as much anymore.’”

In fact, not at all in this, her senior season. Always a solid defender, LeBlanc got the call from her coach to become the team’s defensive specialist, a role dubbed the libero. The position, one that generally replaces a middle hitter in the lineup, plays the back row exclusively and can be a daunting one, as top hitters from opposing teams look to slam the ball to the court, oftentimes directly at that specialist.

It’s a role that Hudson, last year’s Olympic League defensive MVP, thrived in – and one in which LeBlanc thrives now.

“She’s not afraid of anything,” Webber Heilman says. “She can track the ball, get low and fist the ball up.

“She’s small but pretty dang flexible, strong and fast,” the Sequim coach says.

In 2013, the Wolves often had both Hudson and LeBlanc keeping the floor clean.

“That was pretty awesome, having her and Hannah (there),” Webber Heilman says.

LeBlanc has embraced the special role, but her coach says LeBlanc may be even more valuable from behind the service line. With three matches remaining in the season, both coach and player estimate she’s missed just two serves.

“She never gives up (and) always has a smile on her face,” Webber Heilman says.

Well, almost always. A recent serve gone wrong put a frown on her senior’s mein – but only briefly.

 

The do-it-all

It was already a month into the 2013 season when Webber Heilman made a change in her lineup, switching Emily Wallner – a veteran of the varsity club – from outside hitter to a setter.

“Not many high school kids are willing to try whatever they can to help their team,” Webber notes. Further, few varsity players would be able to pick up a rather specialized role such as setter after playing the better part of six years as a hitter.

“She just had the natural ability to do it,” Webber Heilman says. She recalls the day she asked Wallner to make the switch.

“OK, whatever,” Wallner responded.

Says Webber Heilman, “She’s played every position except libero. She’s probably one of my most well-rounded players. I could pull her out to play middle or outside hitter right now.”

The move paid off, as Wallner led the team with 84 assists in the postseason that year, and tied teammate Kate Harker for most postseason blocks (18) on her way to being named an all-Olympic League honorable mention.

Wallner played volleyball in middle school and showed aptitude for it early on, playing varsity for SMS’s Timberwolves in seventh and eight grade before the leap to high school.

Following tryouts at Sequim High as a freshman, she found her name on the varsity roster.

“I worked hard but … I didn’t think I’d make varsity,” Wallner recalls.

Webber Heilman and company put Wallner in as a middle blocker.

“I wasn’t a huge fan of middle because my blocking wasn’t very strong,” Wallner says. “(But) she can put me in anywhere.”

That positive attitude got put to the test in 2013 when Wallner was switched to setter.

“It was a challenge: most setters grow up in that position,” Wallner says. “If she (Webber Heilman) wanted to put me in at libero, I’d do it. As long as I get to play, I’m into it.”

Odds are the Sequim coach will keep Wallner where she is. She and Armstrong split setting and hitting duties and dominate the stat line most matches.

Wallner also becomes a kind of coach on the court, her coach says, by rallying her teammates after points to help keep them focused.

“She says, ‘My better’,” Webber Heilman says, as in, “It will be better next time.”

That leadership starts even before a match starts. At practice, the Wolves gather in a circle, warm up and go through what players call “Highlight, Lowlight.” That, Wallner says, is when players can talk about their day and grow a bit closer. That helps, Webber Heilman notes, with five of the team’s six seniors doing running start.

Wallner, one of those in the Running Start program, doesn’t have a class at Sequim High this year.

“Because I don’t go to school with these girls, I want to know how they’re doing,” Wallner says.

If on-the-court results are any indication, they’re doing just fine. Despite a loss to North Kitsap on Oct. 21, Sequim is in line to keep a hold on second place in the Olympic League. The Wolves would then host the Olympic League tournament with a chance for some revenge against NK’s Vikings and shot at a top seed heading into the West Central District tourney.

Playing a big part in Sequim’s chances is Wallner’s teammate, a dual-threat player who grew up about 800 miles from the peninsula.

 

The natural

The left side of a volleyball court is often called the “strong side,” as it’s generally easier for the majority of players with right-handed preference to attack the ball. Conversely, the right side is dubbed the “weak side.”

But left-handed players can change that up with hard-hitting attacks from the right.

It’s a reality Olympic League teams battle when they play against Alyse Armstrong and the Wolves.

Adding to her repertoire, Armstrong throws off opposing teams from her setting spot when she dumps the ball over the net with a flick of her hand on the second hit, often catching foes flat-footed and unable to get any kind of decent return.

“Teams get in pass-set,-hit mode (and) Alyse is very deceiving with her dunks,” Webber Heilman says.

A veteran of volleyball since fifth grade, Armstrong played as a youth in Police Athletic League in Nevada and started playing on club teams since her freshman year in Wells, Nev.

“I just really liked the people I played with,” Armstrong says.

A job opportunity for her father eventually brought the family to Sequim in 2013.

While Armstrong says it’s tough to be away from her friends and to connect with her teammates – “I don’t know a lot of folks here,” she says – her coach sees a particularly solid connection between Armstrong and Wallner, the pair splitting setting and hitting roles.

“We just got each other .., just clicked,” Armstrong says.

Armstrong is the only one with a lot of club experience, Webber Heilman notes, but Sequim is looking to use that as an advantage. Teams such as Olympic, Port Angeles and the Kitsap County teams are stacked with players who play together in summer leagues, but Sequim players are relative unknowns.

“They don’t know what we have, they don’t know what we’re doing,” Webber Heilman says.

Armstrong says the Wolves have a pretty good idea of what they’re doing, though.

“We can definitely go far, with how hard we practice,” Armstrong says. “We have a lot of talent, a lot of heart.”

 

 

Reach Michael Dashiell at editor@sequimgazette.com.

 

Sequim looks to host league tourney

 

Sequim lost three sets to none to the likely Olympic League Champions North Kitsap (10-0, 12-0) on Oct. 21. Previously, Sequim hosted and pushed the Vikings on Oct. 2 to five matches.

If Sequim finishes in the top two league spots by season’s end the Wolves will host the league tournament. They’ll need to win their last two matches against and away at Bremerton on Oct. 27 and Olympic on Oct. 28. All four Olympic League teams advancing to the league tourney move on to the West Central District tournament, set for Nov. 7-8 at Washington High School. Six of the 16 teams from Olympic, South Puget Sound, Seamount and KingCo leagues advance to the class 2A state tournament.

 

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