Notre Dame-Belmont’s volleyball elite doesn’t get any better than the dynamic duo of the Class of 2017 — Katie Smoot and Tammy Byrne.
The four-year varsity tandem, each currently playing in the NCAA Division I ranks, led the Tigers to a state championship as seniors. That’s a tough act to follow. But an impossible one? That remains to be seen.
NDB may posses just as deep a well of talent this season. Does anyone bring the sheer terminating power of Smoot — now a sophomore at University of Arizona — who in 2016 led the Central Coast Section in kills? Probably not, although senior Kendall Peters has similar star quality as a beach volleyball player, for which she is committed to play at Tulane University next season.
After Peters’ busy summer on the beach circuit, however, the outside hitter is having her front-row play limited to start her senior season.
The Tigers can afford the luxury of resting Peters because of their depth up front, a depth that has earned the trio of senior Vanessa Pan, and sophomores Abby Miller and Kelly Schackel the honor of Daily Journal Athletes of the Week.
“I’ve got great options,” NDB head coach Jen Agresti said. “I’ve got a deep bench. And with Abby Miller, Kelly Schackel and Vanessa Pan, those three right there are amazing. Throw Kendall Peters into the mix and it’s quite a lot of talent.”
The chemistry between Miller and Schackel has a chance to parallel that of the chemistry of Smoot and Byrne. Like their predecessors, Miller and Schackel have a long history of playing together, one that predates their arrival at NDB by quite a few years. They played the past four years at Redwood City’s Red Rock Volleyball Club.
“They’re different styles of players,” NDB head coach Jen Agresti said contrasting this year’s super sophomores to Smoot and Byrne. “Of course, so talented, but completely different styles of play.”
The sophomores have plenty in common with NDB’s volleyball elite duo though. Both were freshmen starters on a Tigers team that captured a Central Coast Section Division IV championship, the program’s third in four years.
And the best may yet be to come.
NDB is off to a 7-1 start this year. And with the ferocious beginnings, the Tigers are thus far in step with the 2016 state-championship squad.
Last Thursday, NDB got back in the win column in the annual “Battle of Belmont” with Carlmont. The Tigers dropped the annual rivalry matchup last year for the first time since 2012.
And over the weekend, NDB took third place at the prestigious Milpitas Spikefest, including a win over powerhouse Mitty. This also echoes 2016, when the Tigers defeated Mitty for the first time in history en route to taking second place at the daylong tournament.
“We were definitely very excited,” Miller said of NDB’s win over Los Altos in the third-place match at Spikefest. “I think our team went into it not having too high or too low of expectations. So, we just played our hardest and it all worked on it the end.”
The 6-foot Miller steadied the Tigers at outside hitter, totaling 32 kills and a .364 hitting percentage through the five matches, which also included wins over Clovis West and Independence, and a loss to Sacred Heart Cathedral. Only Pan had more team kills in the tournament with 37.
Miller’s all-around play makes her an intriguing prospect. She came close to a double-double in each of NDB’s two non-tourney wins last week. In last Tuesday’s four-set win over Lowell-SF, she totaled a match-high 16 kills, a career-high nine digs and scored two blocks. In the Carlmont match, she added 11 kills, eight digs and two more blocks.
Agresti said that all-around feel is similar to that which made Byrne — now a redshirt freshman at San Diego State — a Tigers great.
“But Abby’s ceiling and roof are just so much higher, athletically,” Agresti said.
Schackel makes for a versatile front-row presence, and one that loomed large against Carlmont. The 6-2 opposite hitter slid over to middle for the first time this season to pick apart the Scots’ defense. In a five-set win that went down to the wire, Schackel scored a career-high 18 kills.
“I was really smart with my plays and knew what the other team didn’t have defensively,” Schackel said. “And I just tried to put the ball away.”
In doing so, she was the picture of consistency. Schackel totaled three kills in each the first and fifth sets, and four kills in the second, third and fourth sets.
“She held that pace through the whole match,” Agresti said.
When the match was on the line, though, NDB turned to the senior Pan to finish off the win.
The Tigers nearly let it slip away. After cruising through the first two sets 25-13, 25-17, Carlmont rebounded with two wins 25-23, 25-20. Then after NDB opened with a 5-1 lead in the decisive Game 5, the Scots stormed back to ultimately tie it at 12-12.
“Panic started to set in,” Agresti said. “Then, obviously, we settled down.”
Pan took over from there. She scored her ninth and final match kill to give the Tigers a 13-12 lead.
“One great things about Vanessa is she will keep her cool,” Miller said. “It doesn’t matter the situation; she’s as cool as a cucumber.”
Peters followed with her 12th match kill, an anomaly for the senior as NDB is limiting her swings thus far. She has totaled just 11 cumulative kills in six other matches this season.
With the Tigers’ tremendous depth, though, they’ve hardly missed a beat. Case in point, Pan finishing off the Carlmont victory in exciting fashion with second block of the night.
“[Pan] is definitely a star player on this team,” Schackel said. “She helps balance the team. She can hit well. She can block well. She can do it all.”