STEUBENVILLE - The road to respectability is a long one.
The Toronto volleyball team has made great strides in the last few seasons under the guidance of head coach Chelsey Fletcher. The Red Knights entered play Wednesday with a record of 7-7.
Toronto fought hard against Catholic Central, but in the end the Crusaders swept the Red Knights by scores of 25-8, 25-23, 25-12, to drop the girls from the Gem City back below the .500 mark for the season at 7-8.
HUDDLE UP — Toronto volleyball head coach Chelsey Fletcher (kneeling) talks to the team members during a timeout at Wednesday’s match at Steubenville Catholic Central. Fletcher has raised the level of play and expectations for the Red Knights since taking over the program.
-- Mike Mathison
"Their middle hitters and their outside hitters are phenomenal," Fletcher said. "The good thing is we were able to return their hits. Our girls are playing at a new level. Their play is a lot more strategic. Our setters played smart. They set the ball well. We stayed low. We played well. Our nerves got to us a little bit in the third set."
Fletcher took over the head coaching duties from Cathie Thomas a few seasons ago.
"I want to thank Cathie Thomas for bringing volleyball to Toronto," Fletcher said. "After her tenure as head coach, there were a lot of changes. With all of the changes, we were basically starting over again with a new program when I came in as head coach.
"If this match was played three years ago, I would have been happy if we were able to return a serve, but not now. We are beyond that point.
"We had some good moments today, but we still have got work to do."
The Red Knights' seven wins this season has surpassed the number of match Toronto has won in the previous few years. It was 5-15 a season ago.
"Two years ago, we won one game," Fletcher said. "This year, our record shows how far we have come. I see it. I watch the girls daily. I watch them at practice and in games. I see how far they have come.
"The girls are mentally into the match. They are working as a unit on the court. During the JV matches, the varsity girls will come down and tell the younger girls what they need to watch for or what they need to fix. They are playing very strategic, and it is carrying over into the other sports."
Even though they were down late in the match against the Crusaders, the Red Knights never gave up. Toronto went on a little run before Catholic Central was able to score the final couple of points to win the third game and the match.
"Tenacity is our strength," Fletcher said. "Also confidence. Confidence is a strength for us now.
"The girls still need to be mentally tougher. We have to battle our nervousness."
The skill level of the Red Knight players has improved drastically in the last few years.
"We had girls serving underhand when we started," Fletcher said. "Now, it is neat to walk through the halls and see the little ones and to hear them say, 'I can't wait to play volleyball.' It is very motivational. We haven't had that before.
"We have improved by working in the summer. We have a summer program. We work in the offseason. We have a clinic. We are doing some new things. We have a lot to learn. I have a lot to learn. I educate myself all the time about the game."
The Toronto players have started believing in themselves and believing in the program.
"They are buying into it," Fletcher said. "I want to give a huge thank you to the parents for trusting in me and for buying into what we are doing."
Behind the scenes, the Red Knights are putting in a lot of extra work and a lot of extra time to improve themselves.
"We definitely have a different work ethic," Fletcher said. "Their work ethic now is completely different than anything before it.
"The girls really believed in themselves in that second set tonight. They really competed. We have not always competed like that. We competed with them when we are at 85 percent.
"You don't want to get swept, but we did compete. Before, our goal was to not get swept. Now, that is not the case.
"We have had a lot of firsts this year. This is the first time we have had this many wins and we are sweeping teams.
"With all of the success we have had this year, the girls are showing a lot of humbleness. They are excited. We are winning battles."
The Red Knights are building a stable program from the ground up.
"It starts with the little ones," Fletcher said. "We have off-season workouts. The parents have been fantastic. You have girls playing in the fifth- and sixth-grades.
"Our girls are talking more. They are carrying themselves differently. I am just blessed to be a part of it."
Toronto entered play this week in fourth place in the OVAC Class 2A standings. The top four teams in each class qualify for the annual tournament. The cutoff date to qualify for the tournament is Oct. 5. The conference tournament will be held Oct. 12 at Big Red.
The Red Knights have made a steady climb in the OVAC standings. Their records since 2007 at the cutoff date have been:
2012, 4-14, 7th place; 2011, 1-14, 7th; 2010, 1-14, 10th; 2009, 0-15; 2008, 3-15, 8th; 2007, 1-13
"Definitely the younger girls," Fletcher said asked what it is going to take to get Toronto to take the next step. "We are going to be working on fundamentals.
"We have a really good administration. They have put a good group of coaches together. All of the coaches work well together. There is coach (Mallory) Blanton in basketball and coach (Kayla) Mosti in softball.
"We don't want to overtax the girls. We have changed how the girls lift. We are a small school. The girls have to play all of the sports. There are no complaints. Everyone works well together."
Playing multiple sports has helped the girls improve as athletes.
"I look into coach Blanton's eyes, and I can see how excited she is about how high the girls are getting when they jump," Fletcher said. "Their verticals will help during basketball season. That is thanks to one young lady, Kayla Brown, who has worked on that with us.
"We are a close-knit group."
Some former players are giving back to the program this season.
"We have some former players helping out the program this year," Fletcher said. "Cari Horne and Taylor Linn are junior high coaches, and Kayla Brown is our strength and conditioning coach.
"It is neat to see everyone come together. I am blessed to be a part of this program."