First-year Hood River Valley volleyball coach Jen Baklenko wasn’t expected to climb a mountain this year. She was merely asked to help the program reach base camp.
And although she was unable to halt a conference losing streak that started in 2002, Baklenko was able to make enormous strides with a young Eagle volleyball team — one that will likely return 11 of 12 varsity players in 2004.
“Our record didn’t really show it, but I feel like we improved a lot this year,” said the former Division I and professional volleyball player.
“The feedback I heard from the other coaches in the league was very positive, and my hope is that we built a solid base for these girls so we can start winning next year.”
Despite dropping each of their league matches for the second consecutive season, the Eagles have built a strong foundation for next year and beyond.
Baklenko’s team has begun to develop a new skill set, as well as a new mental approach that could mean the difference between 0-14 and 7-7 in the Intermountain Conference.
“The big thing for next year will be teamwork, discipline and hard work,” she said. “The players now have a base, and they need to bring those three things with them at the start of the season so that we can work on winning instead of catching up.”
But Baklenko isn’t going to wait until next fall to strengthen her team. She is starting right away, with the introduction of the Wind River Volleyball Club (WRVC) — a USA Volleyball affiliate that will be centered around building a quality high-school program.
Tryouts for 10-12 and 13-14 year-olds start Sunday at HRVHS, and will continue on Nov. 9 for the high-school age girls.
“One of the main reasons I started the club was to improve the high-school program,” said Baklenko, who organized WRVC with the help of her husband, Scott. “I really hope the Hood River girls take advantage because they need to keep working on the things we taught them this season.”
Baklenko knows that for her team to be competitive in the IMC, it will need to go the extra mile to catch Hermiston, Crook County and Mountain View.
But after a much-improved season, in which the Eagles won three league games — compared to zero in 2002 — HRV isn’t that far from being competitive.
“Our last game against Bend really showed me what we have for next year,” Baklenko said. “They seemed to figure everything out that day and began playing for next year, which impressed me.”
In that match, the Eagles won the first game 27-25, lost the second 24-26, lost the third 20-25, and lost the fourth 25-15.
But it wasn’t the end result that Baklenko was paying attention to. It was the effort, the desire and the teamwork that stood out in her mind.
“The girls really showed me what they have,” she said. “We have set a lot of standards and expectations for next year, and if we keep anticipating the way we did against Bend, the wins are going to come naturally.”
Baklenko said she was also pleased with her team’s progress on the defensive end, crediting junior Meghan Flink for setting a solid example on the floor.
“Meghan reads the game better than everyone else,” she said. “She knows how to anticipate and read the floor, and the effort she gives tends to rub off on the others.”
For the third straight year, Flink will likely be the court leader in 2004. But she will also have a lot more experience around her next year — something that has been absent the past two seasons.
Junior hitters Kara Graves and Katie Pritchett will return up front along with sophomores Chelsey Elliott and Jamie Abbott.
Freshman Brianne Rowley, who moved up to varsity at midseason, will also be a major contributor alongside juniors Ashley Delepine, Napua Wampler, Sarah Sherrell and Emily Bounds.
“Our team finally has a base, and I will be interested to see how the girls respond next year,” Baklenko said.
And so will the rest of the league.