The Fort Scott High School volleyball team is the defending Southeast Kansas League champion, going 24-14 last season.
A Sub-State semifinal loss to Chanute ended the season but gave the Tigers motivation to be even better this season, which begins Saturday with a home non-league quadrangular with Columbus, Pittsburg and Girard at the FSHS gymnasium.
"They've wanted to win since the last game we played last year," Fort Scott head coach Carol Bingesser said Tuesday after practice. "They took it upon themselves that they wanted to be better. So they went the extra mile. They did the extra things."
The returning players played in a winter league, with the ones who played basketball juggling Saturday volleyball matches with their hoop schedule. They traveled every Sunday to Pittsburg to play in a nine-team summer league, then hosted a summer league with eight other schools on Mondays.
One thing the summer league allowed as for the Tigers' new varsity setters, senior Caitlin Shorter and junior Kenzie Heatherly, to work with the returning players. With Bingesser running a 6-2 offense, which uses two setters, both will see plenty of court time.
"They're new to the varsity level and they haven't played with Mallory (Shelton), Megan (McDermed) or Jenna (Campbell)," Bingesser said. "That gave me the opportunity to work with them. The setters learned where the hitters like the placement of the ball and where they hit the best."
Bingesser has 29 players on the varsity and junior varsity teams and 17 on the freshman squad. Returning starters include Campbell and McDermed, Marliss Allen, who was a libero, Kori Allen, who was a back-row specialist, and Shelton. All are seniors except Shelton, who is a junior.
Shorter rounds out the seniors. Other juniors along with Shelton and Heatherly are Kelsey Middleton, Taylor Grant, Heather Karleskint and Kristin Allen. Middleton played some varsity last season.
Campbell and Shelton will be starters for the third season. McDermed has been a full-time starter for two seasons.
The off-season has become the time when players get better. It's not enough to just play in season anymore -- something that is true of any sport.
"Mallory went to the Notre Dame camp," Bingesser said. "She and Jenna went to the hitting camp at KU. There was a lot of them that did a lot of individual things. And if they're going to get better, they have to go away to those camps. Their parents gave them the opportunity to make themselves better."
As an individual example, Shelton, already considered one of the top players around, knew she needed to get better and worked hard during the summer.
"(Shelton) knew she needed to get stronger," Bingesser said. "She asked (head football coach Bob Campbell) if she could go (to football conditioning) and what could he say? She's his kid and he couldn't really say no. And she's become stronger and jumps higher and hits harder. She's improved her game all the way around. She's worked hard on her serving and passing. She wants to be an all-around player, not to be just known as Mallory, the big hitter."
Summer leagues also allow the Tigers to see other tough teams, such as Nevada. There are also some tough smaller schools in these leagues, such as Uniontown and Jayhawk-Linn. And those teams will get better by facing Fort Scott, Nevada and Southeast in summer camps.
And anything that can help the Tigers achieve their goals will make the long off-season worth the time. First, Fort Scott wants to top the league again. And Bingesser expects Chanute to continue to be tough and Pittsburg to perhaps surprise and remain a contender despite its losses through graduation. Those teams tied for second in the SEK last year.
Independence and Labette County, which tied for fourth, should also give the Tigers a challenge.
"I think the top four teams will be Indy, Labette, Chanute and us," Bingesser said. "And I don't want to be arrogant but if we keep everything on track and take care of business like we're supposed to, we should be league champs again.
"Just being league champs again isn't our goal. We want to get through Sub-State and get to State."
The first step toward achieving that goal begins at 9 a.m. Saturday morning.