COLUMBIA - As an early season practice begins, Hickman volleyball coach Greg Gunn watches his team run laps around the school's football field. The laps aren't timed, but Gunn seems pleased with the team's hustle. He shouts encouragement and jokes with his assistant about how the players speed up as they pass the coaches. Considering where Gunn says the team was a month ago physically, he has reason for starting practice with grunt work.
"Most of them were in such bad shape (when practices began)," he recalled.
The Kewpies, district champions a year ago, are emphasizing being more fundamentally sound than opponents in 2008, and according to Gunn, you're "better when you're not winded."
When the team members go indoors to practice, their form - hitting the ball at one another and digging back - is criticized. He stops practice twice in a 10-minute span. Gunn notices that the team is practicing unenthusiastically, instead of how they'd play in a game. He shows them how they look standing with flat feet and reaching for the ball instead of getting in front of it.
The players understand the need for conditioning and intense practices. Sophomore Emily Peel said that practices, which began in early August, usually start with about 12 minutes of running before the squad breaks into small groups.
"At the beginning ... our runs were bad," she said.
Peel and sophomore Kayla Rodes say their coach made a graph to illustrate players' physical conditioning levels. The girls agree that team members have gotten stronger and have been able to compete at a high level without becoming fatigued.
Gunn recognizes several strengths in his team. He calls sophomore Katelyn Foley a "very good defensive specialist" and seems excited about her potential defensive contributions, along with junior Kortney Heidy and senior Hannah Babcock. He mentions senior setter Jessica Strother, who is in her fourth year on the varsity squad, as a major asset.
Gunn also thinks Peel is one of the more improved players on the team.
"She's a good athlete," Gunn said. "She's gonna be a factor."
Listed at 5 feet, 11 inches, Peel is the second tallest Kewpie and is now on the varsity roster.
"She adjusts (to varsity competition) really well," Rodes said.
Peel said she has received tips along the way from senior Leslie Gregory, Hickman's other varsity middle hitter.
Hickman opened the season Sept. 4 with a road win over Rolla in two games, then dropped a 2-1 decision to unbeaten Boonville on Tuesday. The Kewpies will compete in the St. Charles Tournament on Saturday.