The Minnesota River Conference is traditionally one of the toughest in the state in terms of volleyball (four of the eight teams were ranked last season), but with a core of experienced returning players the Raiders are hoping to hold their own this fall.
Central’s season opened on Tuesday night, Aug. 28, at Lester Prairie/Holy Trinity.
That contest marked the start of a season in which the Raiders will attempt to overcome the loss of seven seniors from last year’s squad with seven returning players and an untested supporting cast. Through the opening weeks of practice and a scrimmage at Delano, third-year head coach Sarah Hammers has been pleased with the effort her players have shown.
“The kids are playing very aggressively. We have to keep working on our blocking and serve receive, but they’re talking and understanding the offense and defense. I’m feeling pretty good about things,” she said.
Last year’s team posted a 12-13 overall record, but went just 1-6 in conference play — an indication of the MRC’s strength — and was knocked out of the playoffs in the first round by Mound-Westonka.
This year’s squad will be led by four seniors, including captains Brooke Willemsen and Lexi Erpenbach, and Katrina Wessale and Kara Nelson, who transferred to Central for this year. Hammers expected Willemsen to play the front row, Erpenbach to start as an outside hitter, and Nelson to solidify the backcourt.
“I’m excited about this group of seniors because volleyball may not be their first sport, their No. 1 sport, but they’re going to give me everything they have for the next three months and their attitudes are so positive,” said Hammers. “They’ve been showing great leadership. Lexi and Brooke are two great captains who are going to make sure we’re working hard but enjoying ourselves at the same time.”
Aside from the seniors, the team consists of eight juniors and one sophomore. That sophomore, Kaylie Brazil, led last year’s squad with 146 digs as a freshman and will take over full-time libero duties.
Key juniors include setters Abby Forner and Natalie Stockman, who was second on last year’s team with 193 assists and third with 119 digs. Both will play significant roles in the team’s 6-2 offense.
In addition, Nicole Miller will start at the outside hitter position along with Erpenbach. As a sophomore last season, Miller was fourth on the team with 88 kills and posted nine solo blocks. Defensive specialist Anna Willems also saw significant action at the varsity level last year.
Sami Jo Brinkmann tops the depth chart at middle hitter so far, and Hammers said that Wessale, Ashley Luskey and Meagan Sons will compete for playing time in that position as well.
She added that one of the team’s biggest strengths will be its defensive skill.
“Our defense will be back the way I want it to be,” she said. “With Kaylie, Lexi and Nicole, the defense is going to be there, and Kara will definitely add to the backcourt. Nicole is going to be a key hitter for us and we moved her to the outside so she could get more sets. I think we’re going to be scrappy and hopefully have lots of energy.”
At the same time, Hammers said the team’s biggest challenge heading into the season is getting comfortable with the serve receive portion of the game.
“It’s more mental than anything. There’s a lack of experience there, so we’re really pushing that,” she said.
As for the conference outlook, Hammers said she expected Belle Plaine, LeSueur-Henderson and Mayer Lutheran to rise to the top of the MRC.
“I’d love to be in the middle to upper half, but I don’t know what to expect this year. It depends on if we can stay healthy,” said Hammers. “Key games will be Watertown, Sibley and Tri-City. If we can win those three we’ll be OK, but even to beat Jordan would be huge. This is the year we could get Jordan. They won’t be a team to overlook, but they’ll be younger.”
Central’s first home match is set for Tuesday, Sept. 4 against Glencoe-Silver Lake.