Philipsburg-Osceola’s volleyball coach knew better than to serve the ball to Bald Eagle Area’s Grace Hugar in a recent match.
“I don’t think we served to her at all tonight, and if we did it was by accident,” the Lady Mounties’ Dave Eckberg said. “I wanted her to grow roots back there.”
Hugar may be the Lady Eagles’ top hitter, but she’s also pretty good at passing the ball — a dangerous combination.
The Mountain League’s Most Valuable Player as a freshman last fall has brought her hammer of a right arm to the court again this season, helping BEA to a 10-0 record in dual matches, a pair of tournament titles and a hunger to return to the top of District 6.
The 5-foot-9 sophomore started playing in sixth grade and fell in love with the sport, hoping she can keep playing in college. Her 240 kills leads the team, succeeding with a .284 hitting percentage, and her 185 digs trails only libero Alyson Onder. She also has 35 aces.
As successful as she has been hitting, setting her arms in front of a ball flying at her is more appealing.
“I love passing,” she said. “I love when they hit it hard and I have to dig it. I love doing that.”
Having an outside hitter who can pass on a dime is not a common find. And, when the other team knows it is a weakness, it is often exploited. A decade ago during Penn State’s run of four straight national championships, Megan Hodge brought thunder with her swings every match but was frequently the target of opposition servers because of some occasional inconsistency. Conversely, another national champion and All-American Nittany Lion outside hitter, Megan Courtney, actually saw a little time at libero this past summer with the U.S. national team.
That’s not the case when teams face the Lady Eagles, even if Hugar’s passing form is not always following the textbook.
“There are things she does on the court that aren’t fundamentally sound at times, but she’s so freakishly athletic that balls get to targets,” BEA coach Larry Campbell said. “And she’s so bouncy — she’s very quick in transition. She has such a powerful crossover step, that — boom! — she’s ready to take a swing and we can run different tempos with her.”
Setter Madison Rockey said she knows she can rely on Hugar’s passing each night, not to mention her classmate’s other talents. The friends have a strong, unspoken connection, and when Rockey must make a scrambling, desperation set, she knows where the ball goes.
“Always give it to Grace if you get an off-pass,” Rockey said.
But her teammates and coach also recognize her talents aren’t limited to her athleticism. Her knowledge and understanding of the game also give her an advantage.
“A lot of kids you have to train and train and train,” Campbell said. “With her, a lot of things it’s, ‘Hey, why don’t you try to do this?’ For some kids it’s like a week, two weeks, even a month. For her, some of the stuff takes like 45 minutes, then it’s, ‘OK, what do you have now?’”
That has allowed Campbell and the Lady Eagle coaches to work on minutiae, like altering the tempo of plays and moving contact points along the net to make Hugar less predictable and better able to beat blockers.
Despite the valuable traits she possesses, Hugar knows there is still much to learn and improve in her game.
“I think I need to be more vocal,” she said. “I need to work hard, keep going and don’t give up. I shouldn’t expect less than what I want.”
The Lady Eagles are most certainly not a one-girl team, with a number of other hitting threats around the rotation such as middle blocker Jordan Anderson and Hugar’s older sister, Mae, not to mention a talented setter like Rockey.
But Rockey knows who should get the ball when BEA needs the big kill, and Hugar knows what she wants to do with the ball — and with the season the Lady Eagles are putting together.
“We’re looking for a great season,” she said. “I think we’re expecting to go far and have a great, long season.”