With a large portion of games played in the strong Minnesota River Conference, winning seasons have traditionally been hard to come by for the Central volleyball team.
In fact, aside from a 15-9 record in 2010 and a 16-12-2 mark in 2008, the Raiders have not posted a winning record over the course of a full season dating back through 1991 (the 2004 season record was not known).
So while the Raiders would have liked to see a few more wins this fall, Central’s even 12-12 record this year was an accomplishment in and of itself.
“These girls worked hard. They were positive. Last year we were just under .500 and this year we were at .500,” said Raiders head coach Sarah Hammers. “We just need to build, get over that bump and start having winning seasons, which traditionally we haven’t had here.”
While Hammers said she was less than pleased with Central’s three losses to Jordan this year — including a first-round exit from the playoffs courtesy of the Jaguars — she also pointed out a number of highlights. An early season-confidence boost came when the Raiders took one game from Belle Plaine in a road match at the MRC powerhouse.
The Raiders also posted third place finishes in tournaments at Howard Lake and Sibley East during the season, and enjoyed a three game home winning streak during which they shut out Holy Family, Sibley East and Watertown-Mayer.
“To be able to go and win three games, that’s what we need to do more often. Taking games to five is great, but if we can put them away in three that shows progress,” said Hammers.
Win-loss records aside, Hammers said she had a great time working with the girls on the team this year, who collectively earned a silver academic achievement award.
“In a very tough conference I’m happy with the way we played. There’s always room for improvement, but this was probably the most enjoyable year I’ve had, and I can’t say enough about how coachable and how much fun these girls were,” she said.
The team closed out its season with a banquet on Nov. 18, and two individuals were recognized with conference awards. Outside hitter Nicole Miller was the team’s sole all-conference selection, while setter Natalie Stockman was all-conference honorable mention.
Miller was a balanced all-around player for the Raiders, leading the team in kills (281) and aces (38), and posting the second-most digs (292) behind libero Kaylie Brazil (378). She was also second on the team in receptions (437) behind Brazil (603).
Stockman posted 428 assists on the season with 39 kills, 25 aces and 255 digs (good for third on the team).
“She’s a girl that never came off the court and was a true impact player,” said Hammers.
Other top offensive players for the Raiders included Sami Jo Brinkmann (170 kills and the team’s top kill percentage at 42 percent), Lexi Erpenbach (169 kills and 18 aces) and Abby Forner (21 aces, 204 assists).
On defense, Brinkmann easily led the team in blocks with 50, while Brooke Willemsen had 18 blocks, Miller added 17 and Meagan Sons added 13.
Aside from the dig leaders already mentioned, Erpenbach had 196 digs, while Forner added 77.
The team will lose three seniors to graduation next spring in Katrina Wessale and captains Erpenbach and Willemsen.
“I’m going to miss Katrina and Lexi and Brooke. They’ve been dedicated to this program and have worked hard. Lexi and Brooke brought great leadership as captains. It’s going to be hard replacing them when it comes to that,” said Hammers. “We’re losing a lot of leadership and great attitudes. They’ve done a lot for this program and we’re very thankful for everything.”
On the other hand, seven letter winners who played in at least half of the varsity games will return next year, along with three additional players in the program who did not earn letters this year. That gives Hammers a strong building block to start from next season.
“We’re going to need some younger ones to step up and fill some of the spots left by the seniors. But I think we’ll be OK,” she said.
Overall, Hammers said she felt the team played up to its potential this season and may have even surprised some outside observers.
“I think for some people we might have exceeded what they thought we could have done,” she said. “I’m happy with the season. I still think we could have won a few more, but there’s always next year and I’m looking forward to it.”