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First-year Laurel volleyball coach leans on veterans

Being a first-year volleyball coach presents challenges for Laurel High's Jennifer Gobrail, but she has an experienced lineup to help her navigate through the season.

Gobrail is relying heavily on four returning starters — senior middle hitter and captain Megan Brown, junior outside hitter Jahanna Chappelle, senior right side hitter Bilikisu Okoosi and sophomore middle hitter Teni Sopitan — to lead Laurel.

Gobrail, a varsity assistant last year who replaced Taren Langhorne, said it's an impressive group of talent to build around.

"These girls have the ability to have their names on the wall," she said of the championship banners in the school's gym. "We expect great things from them. They have the skills. They can pass, serve and hit. They just have to work for it."

Laurel's biggest weapon is the 5-foot-11 Sopitan, who earned a starting position on the varsity last season despite being a first-year player.

"Teni just came in last year and swept us off the floor," Gobrai said. "We were blown away by her potential."

Sopitan appears ready to build on last year's success after playing club volleyball in the offseason to sharpen her skills.

"She is a beast," Laurel assistant coach Vivian Abalama said. "She is an all-around player. Most tall girls are middle hitters. She can play back row, front row, and we even looked at her as a setter. I tell her she could be a star in college. That's where we want to get her to."

Okoosi is another ascending player. Her role has been expanded this fall.

"Bilikisu is an excellent defensive player and this is the first time she is playing all-around," Gobrail said. "She is a great hitter and that's something we didn't utilize last year. Now, she is a versatile player and an exciting player for the team."

The Spartans added five new players to help the veterans, including senior Alexis Ojeda-Brown, junior outside hitter Subirah Hendrickson and junior right side hitter Jariatu Jambai from the junior varsity. Sophomore setter Lyric Osazuwa (Texas) and DeJa Smith (Middletown High) transferred to Laurel. Senior libero Leslie Santuo rejoined the varsity after sitting out last year.

"I am really focusing on the girls doing their drills in practice," Abalama said. "So they know their positions and know where to go. We are really making sure they jell as a team and understand each other's role."

Laurel looked strong early in its season opener against High Point.

The Spartans took the first two sets, 25-20 and 25-13, before dropping the last three, 23-25, 13-25, 11-15.

Sopitan (8 blocks, 4 kills) and Smith (9 kills) had the top performances.

"We always play Laurel in the beginning of the season, and we always go five games," High Point coach Shirley Diggs said. "Laurel is a great defensive team. They really hustle and try for every ball."

Gobrail said her Spartans got fatigued as the match wore on.

"It's something the girls need to work on mentally to get to the place where it doesn't matter how tired you are," she said.

Laurel rebounded to beat Northwestern two days later, winning 25-15, 25-20, 26-24.

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