Successful volleyball teammates Brianna Stewart and Olivia Kofie approach the sport from opposite ends of the emotional spectrum, much to Larkin's benefit.
Stewart is the coolheaded one. A spectator would be hard-pressed to tell if Larkin is winning or losing based on the 5-foot-10 right-side hitter's expression, which rarely changes.
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"Bri is probably one of the most laid-back competitive people you could ever meet," second-year Larkin coach Henry Graack said. "In the classroom, too, she's real quiet but you can tell she cares about what she's doing. She gets along with everyone I've seen her talk to. She's just real calm and collected all the time, no matter what."
Stewart's docile demeanor belies an underlying intensity. Dangerous whether spiking or tipping, she led the Royals a year ago in kills (260) and blocks (95) while collecting 142 digs and 22 aces. A tremendous leaper with great hands, she could potentially play setter on the Division I level, according to her coach. She already has mid-Division I interest as a right side.
Kofie, a 6-1 middle hitter with all-around skills, committed to Western Michigan as a junior. Also a four-year varsity performer, she demonstrated her versatility last season with 254 kills, 88 blocks, 293 digs, 39 aces and 17 assists.
Larkin's vocal leader, Kofie crackles with the energy of a downed power line.
"Whereas Bri is calm all the time, Olivia gets really amped up for games," Graack said. "I think that's just how she handles competition. She's ultracompetitive so she takes it in completely the opposite direction."
Kofie's Ying and Stewart's Yang proved to be a potent combination for Larkin, which last season won 19 matches, a 10-match improvement over 2011.
"It works," Kofie said of the Odd Couple arrangement. "I like to get the adrenaline going and carry it into the game. I've learned from experience that it can be hard if too many people are vocal. And it also doesn't help anything if everybody is silent either. If I don't know what to say, Bri will jump in."
Stewart and Kofie are close friends with intertwined childhoods. They played together at Abbott Middle School in Elgin, have been varsity teammates all four years at Larkin and both have played high-level club volleyball at Fusion since the U13 level. Both were starters this summer for Fusion's 18 Black squad, which won the AAU national championship in Orlando, Fla., for the second straight year.
The two Royals have played together so long they communicate on an instinctual level during matches. All it takes is a nod, perhaps a gesture. "We can communicate without having to say anything," Stewart said.
Another shared trait? They intend to restore Larkin to the upper echelon of the Upstate Eight Conference and bring home the program's first regional title since 2001.
"I really expect to compete for conference and at least win regionals," Kofie said. "Then go on past sectionals."
It's not far-fetched to think the Royals could take another quantum leap forward as they did a year ago. Beyond the dynamic duo, Larkin returns several experienced players, beginning with senior libero Amelia Gill (105 digs, 26 aces). Entering her third varsity season, Gill lends quickness to the back row.
Other key returnees include senior setter Alyssa McGhee (369 assists), senior outside hitter Lexi Price and senior middle blocker Paige Grantham (70 blocks, 26 kills).
Grantham was mostly used to spike quick sets last season, but she and Kofie have been learning new plays to better diversify the offense. Price is a softball player who does not play club volleyball, but she did work with Graack throughout the off-season to improve her volleyball skills. "The workouts look like they've helped quite a bit," her coach reported this week.
McGhee's improvement could have a team-wide effect. She switched clubs in the off-season from Sky-High to Fusion, where she split time between setting and passing. Graack said she returns a "more consistent" setter. Her teammates have noticed, too.
"She has gotten a lot better and her hands have gotten a lot stronger," Stewart said. "All the girls have gotten a lot better at their positions and how they play the game. I'm just excited for how good we are and how much we can accomplish."
Stewart has gotten better, too. Fusion used her this summer as a starting middle blocker, a position that requires more involved footwork than right side, her high school position. Graack said the extra work should allow Stewart to become an even better blocker on the right side than she was a year ago, when she shut down more than one opposing team's best hitter.
Winning the Upstate Eight River Division won't be easy, but that's the stated regular-season goal for the 2013 Royals.
"Just losing one conference game could cost you the conference, " Graack said. "Batavia is looking really good this year, so is Geneva, St. Charles East and St. Charles North. Our goal is pretty lofty -- winning conference and regionals -- but that's the goal."