OKEMOS — Daria Richards and Rachel Thomas have heard the chatter at times when opponents see them standing on the other side of the net.
The presence of a pair of Division I-bound senior 6-foot-2 hitters near the net can be a bit intimidating for those facing the Okemos volleyball team.
“I think that’s a very big intimidation factor,” said Thomas, who is committed to Tennessee Tech. “I know some teams have told us that and say ‘Wow, you guys are huge and we’re scared to play you.’ That’s great going into the game.”
But Richards, who is committed to Baylor, and Thomas are making their presence felt more than just at the net for the CAAC Blue-leading Chiefs. Both rank among mid-Michigan’s leaders in kills and blocks, but are also playing in the back row and giving Okemos another dimension.
“It’s great to have them go all the way around,” Okemos junior setter Sydney Fountain said. “They are both really good passers and they can put a huge swing on the ball — even from back row. It’s a great tool to have. When it’s not even a perfect pass, they can just crush it from the back row.”
Okemos coach Jamie Ianni started using Richards and Thomas in the back row last season and believes the experience will be beneficial for both in college. She also has sensed their added versatility providing an on-court boost for the Chiefs.
“Rachel at 6-2 is obviously one of the tallest players in the area, but she without question is one of the most consistent passers in the area,” Ianni said. “She plays unbelievable defense. She has great back row skills, as does Daria. We’ve been able to utilize them in the back court and it’s really, really helped our team.”
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Richards said the experience playing back row has increased her confidence as a player. She also believes it allows her and Thomas to provide senior leadership on the court at all times.
“When you’re actually on the court and playing different positions you can encourage your teammates and can communicate a lot more,” Richards said. “Plus, I hadn’t had much experience passing and now I’m much more confident as a passer even if I’m not playing back row.
“If we’re not passing so well, (teammates) know we have another option in the back row so that really helps.”
Richards and Thomas hope to conclude their prep careers by contributing to a deep state tournament run for the Chiefs, who are after their first district title since 2012. Okemos has challenged itself this season by facing tough competition in tournaments to prepare for the road ahead. That includes likely seeing rival Holt in the CAAC Blue tournament and also a tough district that features Holt and Mason.
Okemos recently picked up a big CAAC Blue win by knocking off Holt, the reigning league champ.
“I think (that win) gave us a lot of confidence, but we still have a lot of room to grow,” Richards said. “We definitely want to win districts and see if we can make a run at regionals. We’ve never made it to regionals since I’ve been on varsity and it’s been awhile.
“I think we have all the tools we need and we just need to be on the same page and have everyone in sync and just kind of go from there.”
Contact Brian Calloway at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @brian_calloway.