FRUITLAND — The Fruitland volleyball team didn’t look like a team playing its first game of the season Tuesday night, as the Grizzlies took it to Vale in a straight sets (25-19, 25-21, 25-11) win.

Coming off of Labor Day weekend, Fruitland coach Rena Sitz said the Grizzlies had to have a tough two hour practice on Monday to prepare for the Vikings.

“With Vale, they’re always defensively tough,” Sitz said. “We’re usually such an offensive team, but playing Vale, they make us better defensively.”

Sitz also acknowledged that it’s the Grizzlies strong core of veterans that have led Fruitland into looking strong to open the season.

The Grizzlies are returning seven varsity players from last year, including the two-time reigning Snake River Valley Most Valuable Player Kate Hardy. Hardy had a dominant showing to open her senior season, with 20 kills and four blocks.

Sitz called Hardy, who is verbally committed to play volleyball at Dixie State University, the team’s silent leader.

Over the summer, the Grizzlies travelled to multiple camps, including one at Washington State, and saw a lot of success. Sitz said she’s excited to see where the Grizzlies go this fall.

“I’m really excited about this team,” Sitz said. “This is one of my favorites. It’s like I’m coaching the Dream Team.”

One player that Sitz is excited for is senior Lilly Richins, who is back playing outside hitter. Last fall, Richins played defense as she wasn’t able to jump as needed to play at the net, following an ACL tear in a basketball game her sophomore year.

Richins had 11 digs and six kills against Vale on Tuesday.

“Lilly worked really hard to get back out there,” Sitz said. “She’s really a leader on this team. She’s always the leader in the huddle. And she knew she didn’t want to play defense full time again.”

Richins is now one of several Grizzlies that Sitz will happily play in both the front and the back in any situation. In the third set, the Grizzlies had Richins, Hardy and Sage McDaniel (all net players) on defense.

After splitting time with Phoebe McGrath last fall, sophomore Chanlar O’Neil is taking over as the Grizzlies’ full-time setter. Sitz said she’s excited to see how far O’Neil has come since last year.

“She didn’t always have the confidence last year,” Sitz said. “But she is so tough.”

O’Neil had eight kills, 31 assists and six digs. She’s also another leader on the team this year, Sitz said. Near the end of the third set, Sitz substituted in a lot of her bench players to give them some playing time. O’Neil was standing at the bench making sure every player knew exactly where they needed to be.

Sitz also noted that the Grizzlies have two freshmen this year, Ellie Baker and Ava Dressen, who she thinks will start to see more and more playing time as the year goes on.

The young Vikings struggled to get their offense in a rhythm against Fruitland. As a team, the Vikings served at 94 percent, with Emmy Johnson, Lexi Cleaver and Sierra Cleaver leading the team in serving.

Lexi Cleaver had a team-leading eight kills. She also had seven digs. Sierra Cleaver and Taleah Zueger each had 10 digs.

Johnson had six kills.

“We love playing Fruitland,” Steele said. “Rena is a great coach, and we loved the chance to play against Hardy and an offensive team. It makes us better.”

Steele said she was pleased with the Vikings’ serving and their defense on Tuesday.

The Grizzlies (1-0) will host Baker on Tuesday. The Vikings (1-3) will play at Parma on Thursday.

Nik Streng is the sports reporter for the Argus Observer. He graduated from the University of Oregon in 2015 with a master's degree in journalism, after graduating from Pacific University in 2013 with a degree in creative writing.

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