Chet Snyder’s Fairfield Lady Mules are coming off a historic 31-9 season that included a school record for wins, and their first trip to the volleyball Super Sectional a year ago. They also won the Benton Invitational for the first time ever.
They lost six girls from that squad, but returned a solid nucleolus that had expectations still high. Then, over the summer a group of move-ins to Fairfield sent those expectations soaring, as the Lady Mules should be one of the best 2A teams in the south this year.
Last year’s six seniors helped take the program to unprecedented waters in Fairfield, and several are continuing their athletic careers at the next level this year.
Macie Clark is playing volleyball at Lindenwood this year and Kinsey Kollak is playing locally for Frontier. Jessica Simms is also at Lindenwood, on their competitive cheer squad, while Chloe Newman has signed to play softball for Wabash Valley. Samantha Estes was a starter at middle hitter last year before a knee injury sidelined her for the late season, while Grace Musgrave played sparingly.
“We will miss those guys. What they did for our program was huge, to get us to the Super for the first time,” Snyder said.
Still, the Lady Mules had reason to be optimistic, they returned three all-south players in setter Kylie Stewart, libero Lexi Hobbs and outside hitter Jacklyn Simms, along with another starter in middle hitter Leah Bowers, who stepped up when Estes was hurt last year.
Those four plus some new pieces promoted around them would be a formidable foe for anyway.
But then, over the summer, Fairfield had some additions to the team, with the Reid sisters, Nadia and Makana, moving over from Albion, and then Chloe Britton moving over from Lawrenceville, after she was named all-conference in the LIC last year.
“We had high expectations to begin with. That sophomore group going to be juniors had one loss total at the jayvee level. We knew we had kids ready to step in. And then we had a couple nice move ins and that just took our expectation even higher,” Snyder said. “When those girls moved here in May and June, I changed our summer, where we played as much as we could so the girls could get used to each other, being with each other. Usually you want gym time in the summer, but we flipped that.”
Summer records don’t always matter, but a 38-3 record over a busy summer does paint a pretty picture of what’s to come. Technically, 39-4 if you include the championship game of the Fairfield summer tournament. Snyder entered two split squads in that one and they wound up meeting each other in the championship, a sign of the depth this year’s squad has.
“That tells you how deep we are. Those were varsity teams we will play this year that they beat,” Snyder said.
That also means Fairfield will have to get buy-in from some talented players not getting to play as much as they would on other teams.
“We address that all the time, talked about it and talked about it. In the parent meetings, we talked about it. Our theme is We Over Me,” Snyder said.
Fast and Furious
Lexi Hobbs doesn’t look intimidating, unless you see her play. The ocean may cover two-thirds of the earth, but Hobbs covers the rest from the back row. And the rest of her game has come along nicely as well, as she had improved a once-weakness into a strength with her serving. She has also developed other strengths.
“Lexi is easily one of the best leaders I have ever coached. She has had to work at that. When she came is as a freshman, that was not a strength of hers. She was so quiet, but she has become outstanding with that. She is a workhorse. Lexi and Kylie (Stewart) are probably the only two players I have coached who the longer they play in a day, the better they get,” Snyder said. “Her mental focus and toughness are great. She is always the best at the end of the day.”
“She is not just one of the top liberos in southern Illinois, she is one of the top in the state and the right people just have not seen her yet. She is outstanding, and really does not have a weakness in her game now. She makes it look easy, when what she is doing is really hard,” Snyder added.
High praise from a veteran coach.
Simms stepped up late in the year, and dominated at times in the postseason, becoming one of the best outside hitters Snyder has coached. The lanky six-footer with high jump talent can uncoil on a ball at the net.
“She was a difference maker in the postseason last year. When she was on the front row, we were really good last year. She has become a better blocker. We are still working on her defense, but she is a handful for other teams,” Snyder said.
She will rotate with junior Colbie Sutton, who will play middle back, while Stewart will also play middle in the back row after a position switch this year. Those two, paired with Hobbs, will be a back row with few holes to find for opponent attackers.
“Kylie and Colbie would be numerous teams’ best liberos, because they are both outstanding defensively,” Snyder said.
“All the local coaches know how good Kylie is, but a scouting report might overlook her, looking at a 6-0 hitter on the other side and she is 5-6. She is like the 6-0 post guy who can score 20 on you and the opposing coach is mad because how does she do that?”
“She is just a great volleyball. She is good defensively, she is a great server, she has great hands and she can block. Obviously not like a six-footer, but she can get touches,” he continued.
Stewart’s position switch allows Snyder to insert his daughter, Macayle, into a starting setter role in a 6-2 offense.
“We needed more ball control and Kylie is excellent at that. She was just too good of a player to not have on the court the whole time,” he noted. “I feel like I have four of the best setters in the conference.”
With that positional strength, that means the best setter in the conference last year is no longer setting.
Versatile New Girl
The other setter in the 6-2 will be one of the new girls, Britton. At 5-10, she has versatility as both a setter and a hitter. She is also the daughter of volleyball coaches.
“Chloe is very athletic. She is light on her feet,” Snyder said. “She just pounds the ball, has a heavy arm. Her and Macayle connect really well.”
Britton will set from the back row and hit outside in front, playing all the way around.
Snyder will rotate with junior Callie Vaughan, who will play right side in the front row.
“Callie is a 5-10 girl that jumps well, has long arms and she has really worked on her game. She gives us another big blocker over there,” Snyder said.
Patrolling the middle up front will be Nadia Reid and Bowers. Bowers will start in the front, with Reid rotating in as the second line middle.
“The other team’s second middles will really have trouble matching up with Nadia,” Snyder explained. “She is super fast, a very nice athlete. She is outstanding at the tempo stuff and gives us a presence at the net.”
Bowers showed tremendous growth last year, and that trend looks to be continuing.
“Leah is really good. She has had three schools look at her this summer and I think every time she was surprised. I have to tell her ‘you are good Leah, you are a heck of a volleyball player’. She is super smart and really does not have a weakness,” Snyder said. “If you look back at the Sectional games last year, Leah Bowers was really good. She will not get the press that Lexi and Jacklyn and Nadia might, but she is really good.”
“Having 5-10 and 5-11 middles who are athletic and competitors gives you a chance every night, and then we have a 6-0 outside in Jacklyn who can put it down,” he continued.
Filling out the varsity depth chart will be Lauren Eckleberry backing up outside, sophomores Kenzie Vaughan and setter Kenna Davis and freshman Makana Reid.
The Lady Mules obviously have lofty goals this year. After making the Super last year, albeit as a bit of an upstart team. They have even uttered the S word (State).
“They all filled out papers with goals—personal, team, expectations, what it is to be a Lady Mule. The kids have bought in to that we can’t win a Regional, a Sectional, get to State, unless we do this right. We would like to win all four tournaments, win the conference undefeated and then we want to get to State. We have never really said that before. Last year was a surprise. We were the second seed in the sub-section. To make it to the Super was crazy. We will be disappointed if we don’t go to state, they have worked that hard,” Snyder explained.
In conference play, Hamilton County looks to be their biggest competition this year, as Edwards County has taken a step back from their recent run of success.
In the southern part of the state, the best teams Fairfield will see should be Newton, Pinkneyville, Du Quoint, Nashville, Massac County and 1A NCOE. Lurking in the postseason could be the Breese teams.
The season started today (Aug. 31), with Fairfield hosting an eight-team tournament. That tournament is in pool play as this is being posted.