Being hit with the injury bug early in the season is just about the last thing any coach wants. Once it strikes, though, the only thing a coach can do is try to put a positive spin on it, and that’s exactly what Watertown-Mayer volleyball coach Janis Runka is doing early this year.
The Royals return two of their top three hitters this season, and also add a talented freshman who Runka expects to contribute right away. The only problem is, none of them have seen much time on the court early this season due to various injuries.
Maggie Perrel, who led the team with 333 kills, and Kate Theisen, who was third on the team last year with 145 kills, both return to the team this year, but missed the team’s season-opening tournament last Friday at Albany with injuries. Katelyn Yliniemi, a freshman transfer, is also expected to contribute at the net for the Royals, but also missed the tournament with an injury. The Royals finished 1-3 at the tournament.
Theisen and Perrel were both back at practice Monday and Runka expects all three to be at full strenght soon. Runka is hoping that at the very least, their early absences pays some dividends for his team down the road.
“It’s given me an opportunity to look at other people, and just see how we get through it,” Runka said of all the injuries. “There’s nothing like building character early, and that’s what this does.”
A healthy Perrel and Theisen will be a big part of the Royals’ plans this season. Perrel, one of the team’s co-MVPs last season and a first-team all-conference player, also contributed a team-high 64 blocks and 40 aces, and was second on the team with 228 digs, just two off the team lead. Theisen added 184 digs and 23 aces, and Runka also is counting on Yliniemi to boost the team’s offensive attack. He also said sophomore Ashley Vealetzek will likely also be a key hitter and blocker for the team.
“We’ll have those people that we’re going to be counting on pretty heavily,” Runka said.
One of the Royals biggest losses to graduation was that of Emily Tschida, the team’s honorable-mention all-conference setter and team co-MVP last season. Tschida had 739 assists during the year to blow well past 1,000 for her career, and added 182 digs as well. However, Runka said he is confident in his team’s new setter, Chelsea Wandersee, to fill that role nicely.
“Setting wise, I think we’re all set with Chelsea Wandersee,” he said. “She’s doing very well. She’s able to make pretty much all the sets we need, she hustles to the ball, and she gives us a good block at the net.”
The Royals also lost a couple of key defensive players in Anna Motzko and Ashley Anfinson, who had 197 and 176 digs, respectively, last season. Runka said he expects juniors Abbi Hatling and Britni Grossinger to be among those who contribute in the back row this season.
“The more experience they get, the more we’ll probably depend on them for defense,” Runka said.
Runka said he would “wait and see” when addressing team goals this season, as injuries have made it tough to gauge just what his team is capable of. However, he said he would like to finish in the top half of the Minnesota River Conference, a task that is always tough in one the most challenging and deepest Class AA conferences in the state.
“Belle Plaine, Jordan and Mayer Lutheran are always tough every year, and LeSueur-Henderson as well,” Runka said. “Those four are looking like they’ll be vying for that conference title. The tougher the competition, hopefully we’ll rise to the occasion even more. It’ll be good for our kids.”
The Royals started the season at the Albany Tournament last Friday, where they had 2-0 losses to Albany, New London-Spicer and Little Falls, but beat Milaca 2-0. Runka said his team did not hit or pass especially well at the tournament, but some of the losses were closer than the scores indicated.
“We were close in a couple of those, but we just weren’t able to make the plays when we needed to,” he said.
The Royals also traveled to take on Glencoe-Silver Lake on Tuesday, and will host Holy Family on Tuesday, Sept. 4, in their home opener at 7 p.m. The Royals also play host to Tri-City United in the conference opener on Thursday, Sept. 6, at 7:15 p.m., and host Lester Prairie-Holy Trinity on Monday, Sept. 10, at 7:15 p.m.
“We’ve got a good group of girls, and they get along well,” Runka said. “That’s important, especially at the high school level. … I think the girls are enjoying the game and each others’ company.”