A lot of teams can point to the 2021 sports season and wonder what if? It could be the next Marvel season on Disney Plus.
Case in point: Chet Snyder’s Fairfield Lady Mules volleyball squad. An experienced and talented group went 21-3 on the year. Their only 2A loss on the year was a road defeat at Carmi with two starters out. Still, they never got a chance to test their mettle in the playoffs with the Covid-shortened season.
“Talent-wise, that was my team with the most potential to make a run, yes. It was a crazy spring. We played really well early on,” Snyder said. “But then in big games late against Centralia and Woodlawn, we did not perform well but then did again against NCOE. It is a different feel when you know there is not a postseason, but I would love to have seen that group get a chance.”
The Lady Mules graduated six seniors from that squad, four of whom are playing college volleyball this fall. They also lost a talented sophomore in Makana Reid, who moved to Eldorado. She was second on the team in kills last year.
“That was without a doubt the most experience I have lost in one year,” Snyder noted.
So, with all that talent and experience gone, it should be a down year for Fairfield, right?
As Lee Corso would say—not so fast.
Fairfield reloads for another year. They were ranked third in the preseason Section618 coaches’ poll, despite all that talent departure. They are ranked behind just Nashville and Centralia in the poll that includes teams from Black Diamond, River-To-River, Cahokia, Greater Egyptian and Midland Trail conferences.
“Some of that is on reputation and our success the last few years, and some of that is people saw us this summer and how much we improved down the stretch. We played some good volleyball,” Snyder noted.
That summer included trips to Cape Girardeau, Mo., and Springfield to face some of the top teams in both Illinois and southeastern Missouri. In Springfield, they went toe-to-toe with powerhouses Chatham Glenwood and Pleasant Plains. In Cape, they took Jackson, Mo., to three sets, a team that Snyder said reminds him of Breese Mater Dei.
While the Lady Mules return just one six-rotation player, that one is one of the most talented players in southern Illinois—and just a sophomore.
Emersyn Robbins was an all-south selection as a freshman and received all-state mention as well after leading the Lady Mules in kills last year. She is already getting Division I looks.
“We are obviously quite impressed with Emersyn. She has set some big goals and has some big dreams. She is a different breed as far as kids I have coached. I have talked to her about enjoying this. She is special, and she can get us out of situations against good teams,”
Even the Jackson coach noted how hard she was to stop this summer.
“She has so many shots. She can jump so high that it is a different look. She attacks the ball out of the back row better than anyone I have coached. When she goes to the back row, it is not like we lose her,” Snyder added.
In 21 matches, Robbins had 233 kills and a .383 hit percentage, while adding 62 digs on defense.
The only other player with significant varsity experience back is Lucy Britt, who Snyder says could be a starting setter for just about any team in southern Illinois…only she is not setting for Fairfield.
Britt is the new libero in Fairfield, a distinction that has held high honors for the Lady Mules of late. It has been nearly a decade since Fairfield did not have one of the best liberos in the area, and Snyder says that trend will continue this year. Britt was a defensive specialist on last year’s squad.
“Lucy is great to build around. She will step in and pick up what we have had in recent years at the libero position. Lucy would be most teams’ best setter, and we have her at libero,” Snyder said. “She is extremely good in serve receive. She can read a ball as well as any of them. Her platform is as good as anyone else’s, and her hands are better than anyone else’s.”
Robbins and Britt are two of the captains on the team this year. The third is senior Valorie Dagg, who is stepping into a starting middle hitter role. She had eight kills.
“Valorie has grown up so much. She is our leader. I have three captains with Emersyn, Valorie and Lucy, but Valorie is our leader. That is how much work she has put into it. She is sitting on a really big senior year, and people will be impressed with her,” Snyder said.
Playing the outside hitter opposite of Robbins will be a new starter in Kenna Davis. At 5-4, Davis is undersized for a front row hitter, something Snyder hopes throws some teams off.
“I told some other coaches my second outside hitter is only 5-4. After they saw us, they said your second outside is 5-4, can jump out of the gym, and has a heavy arm. They told me stop sandbagging,” Snyder chuckled.
“Kenna has been the shock of the program. Halfway through her junior year, there was stuff that still just was not clicking with her. As a coach, you start to wonder if she just is not big enough to do the things you want her to do,” he continued. “This summer, out of default, we threw her in as a six-rotation player, and the light bulb came on. She is super consistent now, she serves the ball well, her serve receive has been great, and she can score against good teams now.”
Davis has already received an offer from Frontier Community College, and Snyder would not be surprised if others came in.
Playing opposite of Dagg in the middle will be junior Kate Book. Book played in only four sets as a sophomore but brings an athletic pedigree to the position.
“She just may turn into one of the best middles we have ever had. She is one of our best three-sport athletes,” Snyder said. “She is so fast and athletic. I have had some great jumpers, but she can hang. She does not look explosive, but she can jump.”
“We are undersized, but five of the girls I have out there are five of the best jumpers I have had,” he noted.
Another of those leapers is junior Kaylee Barger, who will play a right-side hitter spot. Barger will play the front, while a defensive specialist will play the back row in that rotation spot. Vying for that spot is a group of underclassmen: sophomore Mabry Ellis, junior Chelsea Cuff, junior Jillian Kinney, and junior Liv Carter.
And running the show this year will be a sophomore setter, as Fairfield switches to a 5-1 with Rylee Edwards in charge of the offense. She has played hitter and setter in the past.
“Rylee is just so dang athletic. She went to the SIU setter camp, and they liked what they saw in Rylee and her potential,” Snyder said. “Losing two setters like Chloe and Kylie, who may have been the two best setters ever at Fairfield, and then to have Rylee right behind them is a gift. She is more athletic than those two, and longer. Our setter is one of our best blockers. She can run quick tempo; she can push the ball outside.”
The Lady Mules have won three straight conference championships, including a 9-1 mark last year. Their top challenger this year looks to be the Lady Foxes of Hamilton County, also ranked in the top 10 of the coaches’ poll. They split two matches this summer. Carmi and Jess Smith was the lone BDC team to beat Fairfield last year and will look to have a say in the conference chase as well.
Fairfield will begin and end the regular season by hosting tournaments. The top teams in the kickoff tournament this weekend will be NCOE, Robinson, and Teutopolis. Staunton and Patoka were in the competition, but Covid has knocked them out of play to open the season.
The following weekend, Fairfield will play in a new tournament, sort of. The Casey Tournament folded, but the majority of the teams in that tournament are now in the Richland County Tournament, including Fairfield. State-ranked Tolono Unity will be a top challenger there.
And another big change came late for Fairfield, as they got a chance to play in the Crossroads Classic in Effingham, as some out-of-state teams had to drop out. In one of the best tournaments in the state, Fairfield is seeded 21st of 21 teams. They will open against Naperville Central and Belleville Althoff in pool play there, two storied programs. Naperville has an outside hitter who has signed with UCLA.
The last tournament of the year in Fairfield will feature Herrin, Pickneyville, Woodlawn and Hamilton County, all top 10 teams in the south, along with Carterville, Massac County and Staunton.
All said and done, the Lady Mules will be tested this year, one way or another. And hopefully that transfers over to a postseason, something that is not a given at this point with schools shutting down for outbreaks before the season gets going.