Rachel Hopkins finds voice as leader of the Hilliard Darby Panthers

As a volleyball player, Rachel Hopkins was at square one when she entered the Heritage Middle School women’s team as a seventh grade student.

“I couldn’t get a ball over (the net),” she said. “I played volleyball in a recreational league, but it wasn’t much. I thought it was really fun, so I thought I would give it a try.

Her game has grown exponentially since then, and now she runs Hilliard Darby as a senior. Hopkins, a middle hitter, had 126 kills and 31 blocks in 16 games – nowhere near where she was as a college kid.

The sport also helped Hopkins come out of his shell. A self-described introvert, she found her voice with the help of a 2021 senior class led by Lexi Capka, Sophia Iosue and Shelby Long.

“My sophomore year, I didn’t speak at all,” Hopkins said. “The juniors welcomed me. I was very close to (all). They just helped me – they used to say bloom – but yeah, they really did. They spoke to me and they included me. They took him out of me.

Darby’s trainer, Rebecca Biller, has been part of that group of seniors since middle school.

“I’ve been in that senior class – and the junior class – pretty much their entire career,” she said. “So this group is very special to me. I just watched them grow up and saw them become the volleyball players they are now.

Biller, who took over as Darby’s coach before the 2020 season, saw firsthand how much Hopkins has grown as a leader.

“The second year she was super calm,” Biller said. “As a sophomore in college you don’t know how to be on the pitch because there are so many older players. Over the past couple of years she has really stepped up and taken the whole team trying to motivate them to be better and to try harder.

Hopkins has a dry mind when she describes herself as a gamer.

“I couldn’t do it,” she said of her college years before admitting, “I still can’t do it.”

Darby’s straight-set loss to Thomas Worthington on October 5 was the epitome of his season so far. The Panthers held the lead in two of three sets, but couldn’t hold back the Cardinals.

“This year has been mentally difficult because every game is so close,” said Biller. “I know the winning and losing record shows that we’re losing a lot, but if you look at our sets, (they’re) very exciting to watch. We are like a roller coaster. You can’t finish a game. We come to 17 (points) and cannot figure it out from there.

Darby lost in four sets to Central Crossing on October 6 and Olentangy Berlin in straight sets in the OCC-Cardinal Division match on October 7 to drop to 4-15 overall and 0-8 in the league.

“I would like us to win a game,” Hopkins said before adding, “but we got really close. I wish we played fun. We had a good game (against Thomas). We all had fun and were smiling as we walked out (of the court).

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