By Rubin E. Grant
Oak Mountain seniors Leah Nielsen and Maddie Moss have been playing volleyball together for so long they could be considered Siamese twins, joined at the brain on the court.
“We’re super close,” Nielsen said. “We’ve been playing together since the seventh grade, and for the last two years we’ve played on the same club team. In a game, it’s like we read each other’s mind before we do something, especially when Maddie is playing setter.”
This fall, Nielsen and Moss have a single-minded focus. They will try to lead Oak Mountain back to the Class 7A state tournament.
The Eagles made consecutive Elite Eight appearances in 2016 and 2017, but eight seniors graduated following last season. Nielsen and Moss are the only two returnees with any substantial varsity experience.
They are ready to take on the leadership challenge.
“Leah and I are 100 percent set on leading the team,” Moss said. “It’s a lot of pressure and we have to work through some stuff, but I’m excited about the season.”
Oak Mountain coach Tien Lee is glad to have the duo leading the way. “They have really stepped up,” he said.
Nielsen also has moved from middle hitter to outside hitter.
“It gives me a chance to show my versatility,” Nielsen said.
The Eagles have two other seniors – Tori Martin and Jessica Pack – but they were on the junior varsity team in 2017. Right-side hitter Katelyn Frey is the only player on the team other than Nielsen and Moss who has spent time on the varsity.
“It’s basically like we’re starting over,” Lee said.
Sophomore Sydney Jaffee has taken over at libero, but this is her first time playing varsity.
“She’s learning quickly,” Lee said. “I’m happy with her progress so far.”
Lee said he’s also encouraged about the early play of middle hitters Zoe Atkinson and Josie Ohlson.
The Eagles split their first six games of the season. After losing to Spain Park in their season-opener, Oak Mountain went 3-2 in their Eagle Invitational, beating Briarwood, Hewitt-Trussville and Hartselle, but losing to Helena and Thompson. The loss to Thompson came in the tournament final.
“We definitely played better than expected,” Nielsen said. “I think we shocked some people by taking Spain Park to five sets.
“I think we have a lot of potential and our chemistry on the court is really good. As the season goes on and we gain more experience, I think we’ll become more consistent in tight situations.”
Oak Mountain continued its challenging early schedule last week, taking on perennial powerhouse Bayside Academy Thursday and then competing in the Juanita Boddie Tournament at Hoover.
“I think playing harder teams makes us play at a higher level,” Nielsen said. “It forces us to play together and communicate better on the court.”
Moss also believes the difficult schedule will pay dividends.
“We’ve started out with a bang,” Moss said. “It’s a very ambitious schedule, but I completely expect us to improve. We have the talent, passion and camaraderie. The only thing we don’t have is experience. Once we break through that, I think we’ll do pretty well.”