Charleston Catholic's Sierra Portillo (left) and Gabby Portillo (center) try to block a shot by Clay County's Summer Alley during Wednesday's match at the Civic Center Volleyball Showcase.
Simone Assaley has experienced it all during her four years at Charleston Catholic.She has helped the Fighting Irish climb the ladder of success, eventually reaching the pinnacle in winning back-to-back Class A state championships in 2009-10. This season, though, may be the senior's biggest test.Catholic learned Tuesday that it will be without one of its top players, Catherine Bandak, who received a preliminary report that she tore her anterior cruciate ligament and will be out six-to-nine months after surgery and rehabilitation. On top of that, the Irish start three freshmen so they will need every ounce from Assaley, who seems more than up to the task.The Irish began to put the pieces back together Wednesday evening, defeating Class AA Clay County (25-5, 26-24) and Nitro (25-18, 25-9) during the Civic Center Volleyball Showcase."We're picking ourselves up and we're all playing to the best of our abilities,'' said Assaley, who earned all-state honorable mention after last season. "We have a lot of young players that have improved tremendously. It's kind of amazing."Whenever the young players get down on themselves, I try to do the best to tell them what they did wrong and bring them back up to their confidence level. It's a lot to live up to. We definitely want to win another championship. We want the younger girls to experience how it feels.''Bandak, an all-state basketball player, sat on the bench in street clothes Wednesday watching her teammates. An MRI scheduled later this week will be more definitive on her knee injury and the course of action."She went down in our first match of a tournament Saturday,'' said Catholic second-year coach Lindsay Kuncher. "We didn't think it was going to be that bad. Just at the thought of losing her ... she is our offense and she is our leader."We rallied and won a few matches that day. The team is starting to rise to the occasion. We're playing in new positions, but we're starting to feel a little more comfortable. We have our ups and downs, but we'll get there. We just need some experience for these players in new positions.''
Kuncher's rock has been Assaley."She is one of a kind,'' said the Irish coach. "She really is the vocal leader. She's great with the younger girls, making sure they're in position and making sure everybody's doing their job. We really couldn't afford to lose her.''The Civic Center Showcase has been even more valuable to the Irish (21-4-2) this time around."We try to do this tournament every year to get the experience at the Civic Center,'' said Kuncher. "Under these lights, on the sport court with the pressure in the big arena ... no matter who you play it's a good experience. We play three freshmen. I expected a lot of nerves out of them, but they've stepped up and done well. This is huge for them to see what it's like at this level.''Catholic uncharacteristically fell in last season's state quarterfinals, but Kuncher said the team has another run to the Civic Center left in them."I do just because we play such great defense,'' she said. "We don't have a whole lot of offense and power, but I don't think our defense could get much better. Our libero, junior Hannah Gallian, is a phenomenal defender. She's everywhere and she's a leader on the floor. I think she can carry us pretty far.''
And another reason for optimism is Assaley, who is intent on wringing every bit of effort from her teammates and herself."It's weird being a senior,'' she said. "It's weird to think this is the last year I'll be going to practice or a game at night. I'm trying to take it all in and be appreciative of everything everyone has given me the last four years. Just being the best senior I can be.''Reach Tommy R. Atkinson at email@example.com or 304-348-4811.