When Cheney senior Ally Nikkel had anterior cruciate ligament surgery on a knee at the end of the summer, volleyball coach Sara Lungren didn't know what to expect from her team.
Who would replace the athletic Nikkel? How would that chemistry work?
Yet Cheney is 15-0. The Cardinals play in a quadrangular at home tonight, then play with Bishop Carroll in a triangular at Valley Center on Thursday.
"I think we're playing well together," said Lungren, whose team finished third in Class 4A last fall. "I don't think I expected this to happen, honestly.... Ally was one of the reliable, dependable people that you don't worry about. We had to go back to the basics."
Cheney is using less-experienced players, but they've developed quickly and the team has jelled well.
What has helped is Lungren forces her players into different roles and lineups throughout the season.
"I want them to play in different rotations and not feel like, if something different happens, they freak out and don' t know what they are doing," Lungren said. "I change it up and make them do crazy stuff on purpose. I make them evolve and adjust."
Junior setter Alison Akler primarily runs the 5-1 offense, although Cheney switches to the 6-2 offense with freshman setter Carlea Holt.
"She is really smart," Lungren said of Akler. "I can tell her, 'You need to do this, you have a small blocker over there.' She understands what I'm thinking. She's easily coached because she understands the game."
The hitters have been strong, too. Merissa Quick, a 6-foot-2 middle who is still undecided on whether she'll play college volleyball or basketball, has been key.
"She's dominating pretty much everything," Lungren said. "She's a kill leader for us, she's the hitting percentage leader.... She's spending a lot of time playing in the back row, as well."
Junior Payton Scheer (5-7), who usually plays outside, has improved dramatically throughout the season.
"She'll hit down the line, and she doesn't have to do it hard, just chop it, and it lands where nobody's at," said Lungren, who played at Wichita State. "When I was in high school, I would never have been able to do that."
Junior transfer Mackenzie Orchard is Cheney's other outside. She's a year-round player with Akler and is a go-to hitter when Cheney needs a point.
Junior Robyn Leroux is a left-hander, but Lungren has her at middle instead of the right side because she gets so many kills to either corner.
Building a program — East coach Randi McClellan is in her fourth season with the Aces, and she likes what she sees.
"I feel like we're getting girls that aren't playing volleyball for the first time," she said. "Girls that are more volleyball aware."
Senior Haleigh Lewis was an All-City League hitter in 2009, and she continues to dominate the middle.
But East has young players such as sophomore Hanna Ewart, who sat out last season because of medical reasons; junior Shelby Bishop; and setters Lauren Wiebe (junior), Jessi Sennett (sophomore) and Andrea Navarro (freshman).
They are talented young players, and when they're combined with Lewis, it makes the Aces a difficult team to face.
"We're winning games now that we haven't won in the past," McClellan said. "We're definitely not where we want to be, but we're not getting blown out by teams like we were in the past. We're competing."