Led by their DI star and steadied by their setter, Central chasing wins record and first sectional title in 40 years.
ELKHART — In some ways, Azariah Stahl and Taylor Shreiner couldn't be in more different places as volleyball players.
One of them, Stahl, is Elkhart Central's prodigious hitter, the other the Blue Blazers' steady setter.
One of them, Stahl, is probably still at the relative start of her volleyball glory, a nationally recognized player bound for top-level collegiate competition next fall, and possibly the continuation of already having represented the U.S. in international competition.
The other — while she hopes not — may be looking at the abrupt conclusion to her volleyball career next week.
And yet, Stahl and Shreiner in some ways are smack in the same place as volleyball players.
Oh, sure, they did each earn American Volleyball Coaches Association Indiana Player of the Week honors in back-to-back weeks last month.
But more than that, they have a common goal, and again, one is a prodigious hitter, the other a steady setter.
You don't get a more connected, same-place feeling than that when it's working, when one is hammering kills after the other is perfectly positioning the nail.
And it's working for Stahl, Shreiner and the rest of the improved Blazers, who are on the cusp of the best fall in program history as they get ready to close their regular season on Thursday, Oct. 17, with a home match against NorthWood.
Central (24-3) can tie a school record for wins with one more victory, and is believed to have already clinched a school standard for winning percentage.
Next week, the Blazers take a stab at capturing the program's first sectional title in 40 years when they compete in the Warsaw Sectional.
Being seniors, Stahl and Shreiner are also in the same exact place in knowing that it's now or never, and both are totally vested in this moment, never mind Stahl's bright future nor her background of national team competition.
“Even though I've played on national teams and everything, I do think high school is where you make yourself, develop friends,” Stahl says. “My high school career means everything to me, and I think even down the line, thinking about where I came from, and having had my mom as a coach, I'm going to look back it the same way. Those things have made me the player I am.”
Indeed, Stahl's played her entire high school career for Yolanda Stahl, who came aboard at Central the same season as Azariah.
“She loves high school volleyball,” Yolanda says of her daughter. “She loves playing with friends, and this core group of seniors we have, she's played with them since eighth grade in club. She also loves being able to play in front of kids. The atmosphere is great. We go to club and national things and you don't get the same atmosphere there you get here. She likes the excitement in the air at high school games.”
And Azariah likes having Shreiner as her setter, even if she's also experienced some of the nation's premier setters.
“Her hands are amazing, she's really smart and she knows who to give it to in situations,” Stahl says of Shreiner. “She's a fantastic setter, I'd say one of the best setters I've had.”
Shreiner says Stahl never acts the part of an above-you superstar.
“I love playing with her,” Shreiner says. “She helps you feel amazing. Every time I have a good set, she's always coming up, saying, 'Great set.' And if it's a bad set and I'm like, 'I'm sorry,' she's like, 'No big deal.' She's amazing that way.”
While Stahl is in her fourth year as a Blazer standout — as a freshman, she was on a 25-7 team that set the school standard for wins, as a sophomore she was on a team that tied the win mark at 25-11, and as a junior she led a 21-8 finish — Shreiner is in her second as a starter.
“She has grown a lot, matured a lot,” Yolanda Stahl says of her setter, who hopes to play beyond high school, but has no firm offer. “She's thinking more when she's running plays. I try not to call plays for this team. I don't think that makes us a better team or her a better player, so she and I have discussed decision-making, moving the ball around. She's also a lot more aggressive with her setting and gotten a lot better defensively.”
For Shreiner, it's not as simple as just feeding the feature player.
“I try to mix it up because other teams think I'm going to go to Azariah all the time,” Shreiner says. “So it throws them off when I set middle or right side.”
Seniors Jenai White and Madison Vaught are among other options to put down kills or make blocks, while Kate Cobb at libero, Ally Delks and Olivia Jenks are still three more seniors in the thick of the Central mix.
Stahl's not always right at the net, either. She plays back row plenty given her defensive abilities.
“I play all the way around and I think I'll be doing that in college,” says Stahl, bound for Purdue on a volleyball scholarship. “I've talked to the coach there, and he expects me to be able to play all the way around. And here (in high school), it's as important to create points in the back row as the front row.”
Ultimately, the now senior-led Blazers want to create enough points to capture that first sectional crown for the program in 40 years.
“That would be huge,” Shreiner says. “That's our goal. That was our goal last year, but I think we were focusing on Memorial so much it's why we lost to Northridge (in a five-set semifinal). We've got to focus on who we're playing.”
“Last year, we could get complacent on the floor at times,” Yolanda Stahl says. “This year, it hasn't been perfect, it never is, but I think the girls have really focused and continued to play with intensity. They've been able to fight through things better, and it's made a difference. They're excited and focused on not letting down.”