Chalk it up to versatility.
Lambert’s volleyball team is off to a 9-1 start this season, its latest victims coming in the form of Sandy Creek and North Gwinnett.
Outside hitter Ella Beyer is the team’s middle blocker, hitter Bella Tolone splits time at setter, and Molly Kate Patten is a converted tennis player two years into her volleyball career.
These Longhorns can move.
“High school is a different beast,” Lambert head coach Missey Hall said. “In club, most of the time you have your position, and that’s the position you train for and that’s the position you play. When you’re in high school you do a multitude of different things, and that’s what I love about these girls – and last year’s girls – they will take any role and run with it. It’s really cool to see.”
Tolone led the team in kills two years ago but did not play last season. This year, she’s averaging just over five kills per set, collecting a combined 17 kills Thursday against Sandy Creek and North Gwinnett.
She also finished with 22 assists and 12 digs.
“Bella has just come on really, really strong. It’s nice to have her back,” Hall said. “She’s such a strong player at every position. We didn’t start off having her set, but we saw a need to put her in and she just embraced it like nobody’s business. She’s just very talented. Her ball control is about as good as it gets at the high school level, so it’s nice to have her back.”
At one point during Lambert’s first set against Sandy Creek, Tolone unleashed a vicious spike that knocked Patriots middle blocker Jada Caruthers onto her back.
Beyer had 14 kills, while Patten finished with nine and Taylor Nelson chipped in eight.
Beyer was primarily an outside hitter for the Longhorns last year, but she’s seen time in the middle of Lambert’s front row this season and is second on the team with 10 blocks.
“Moved her to the middle because she does move well laterally, and she does have strength,” Hall said of Beyer. “She’s just grown into that position really well.”
The only player Beyer trails in blocks is Patten, a rangy freshman middle blocker whose primary sport is tennis.
“She’s only played for two years. She’s coming from the tennis world, so her lateral movement (and) her reaction time is insane,” Hall said. “You don’t see a lot of freshman middle blockers, especially kids that haven’t played but two years, have the reaction time that she does. She can come down off the block and very easily pass the ball to the setter. The upside of this girl is crazy, and she’s a great, hard-working kid, too.”
Of course, despite all the shuffling, there are several mainstays in the Longhorns’ lineup.
Senior Miranda Hardin is Lambert’s exuberant libero, and she led the team with 16 digs Thursday; senior Megan Martin is a consistent presence at setter, tallying a a team-high 26 assists; and senior Clarisse Evangelista is the linchpin in Lambert’s back row.
Nelson burst onto the scene in 2019 as a sophomore and is a threat at outside hitter for the Longhorns.
Sophomore Jordan White missed time last season because of an injury but will offer depth at middle blocker this season.
“She’s a really, really good blocker, and I’m really pleased with the approach she’s had,” Hall said. “Unfortunately, she broke her pinky right down the stretch, but she was able to come back those last two matches of our season last year. Then she lost club, like everybody did. These kids have still shown a lot of growth, despite all the obstacle that have been thrown at them.”
In addition to the uncertainty tied to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Longhorns were dealt a blow when Nidhisha Kancharla reinjured her knee.
“Just one of the greatest kids – first-team All-Region last year,” Hall said. “Everybody’s heart breaks for her, but she has taken on a manager/leadership role. She helps train the middles; she’s doing stats … she’s a huge part of this team, even though she’s not on the court.”
Lambert has won nine of 10 matches this season, but Sandy Creek caught the Longhorns off-guard in the first game of Thursday’s tri-match, using drop shots and roll shots to find holes in Lambert’s defense.
Lambert rallied in the first set, winning four of the final five points to avoid the upset, but Hall took note of Sandy Creek’s execution and said the Longhorns will be more prepared for finesse teams in the future.
For now, however, Hall and the Longhorns are simply happy to be back on the court, knowing their season is anything but guaranteed.
“This season has been so special,” Hall said. “They need some normalcy; they need something to connect to – I need something to connect to. The way that they’ve embraced that we don’t know how much time we have. They know every day is special, and they get to play, where a lot of kids aren’t getting to play right now. This is a blessing. It really is.”