by ADAM GRUENEWALD
The departure of eight seniors leaves the Central volleyball team filled with youth this season along with a few key returning starters.
Last year, Central (17-12) was swept by Belle Plaine in three games in a Section 2AA playoff game as the Tigers went ahead to win the consolation bracket of the state tournament.
Head coach Sarah Hammers said the returning upperclassmen will need to provide a strong example for the younger players on the squad.
“I’m really excited,” she said. “The girls are clicking well. Some of these girls have never played together. We do have a younger team but the senior leadership is bringing everyone in to be team players.”
Among the key departures were setter Natalie Stockman and outside hitter Nicole Miller who made the Minnesota River Conference team, along with Jennifer Oelfke, Meagan Sons, Sami Jo Brinkmann, Abby Forner and Ashley Luskey.
Headlining the returners this year is senior libero and co-captain Kaylie Brazil, who made the MRC team after finishing second on the team in ace serves, and served at 92 percent. She also led the team in digs with 160 in MRC play and 450 overall, averaging 5.3 digs per game. She was the primary passer in serve receive passing with 528.
Brazil recognized the departure of the large group of seniors and the impact they had.
“They were a big part of our team last year and they just taught us girls a lot,” she said. “They were role models and have shoes to fill so we’re going to try to do that this year,”
Looking at this season, Brazil is among just seven upperclassmen on the varsity roster.
“We have a young girls this year so it’s going to be a lot of learning,” she said. “Learning for them is helping us too because we go back to the basics so it will be fun. It will be a new team so we’ll all learn together and learn communication as well.”
Other seniors along with Brazil include fellow captains middle hitter Megan Knickerbocker and defensive specialist Megan Miller as well as outside hitter Megan Geis and middle hitter Alli Curson.
“It’s a young team but we still have Brazil and this will be her fourth year on varsity in the back row,” said Hammers. “Knickerbocker got experience last year as did Miller. Geis and Alli have worked really hard, especially this summer they’re work in the weight room in really paying off.”
Another key returnee is sophomore outside hitter Grace Wickenhauser.
“Even though she’s a sophomore, I told her day one she’s a returning varsity player,” said Hammers. “She’s coming in active.”
Two juniors in Brooke Pischke and Clare Stuewe also return to the squad along with sophomores setters in Emily Lano and Hanna Kroells.
“The two sophomore setters, that’s going to be the hardest role for them is to step in and practice,” said Hammers.
Showing the youth, freshmen Bren Fox, Anna Mackenthun and Mary Wenisch will sit in for varsity as well.
“They’re getting the playing time but also getting the varsity practice and experience,” said Hammers.
The main MRC challenger to the Raiders will be Belle Plaine and sophomore Mariena Hayden who are ranked number one in Class AA by the Minnesota Volleyball Coaches Association. Jordan, who the Raiders play twice, is ranked in a tie for fifth as well.
“It’s always a tough conference,” said Hammers. “Every time we show up we got to play and I think we’re going to have some fun.”
The Raiders opened up the season against Lester Prairie on Tuesday at Winsted, Aug. 26. Their first home match is against Glencoe-Silver Lake on Sept. 2 which starts a packed first month with tournaments at Howard Lake on Sept. 6, at Waterville on Sept. 13 and at Sibley East on Sept. 20.
The Raiders end the regular season with a tough five-match stretch hosting section opponent Kimball Area on Sept. 30, Jordan on Oct. 2 and section opponent Mound Westonka on Oct. 6 before road matches at Belle Plaine on Oct. 9 and Mayer Lutheran on Oct. 14.
“Even though we have six home games, we have some non-conference games that are going to provide some energy,” said Hammers.
Hammers said her team is ready to continue to success of the large senior group last year.
“My goal is to keep building on what the seniors did last year,” she said, highlighting the MRC opening match win against Mayer at home on Sept. 5. “I want to have another game like that, not just against Mayer but a tough team like Jordan. Let’s go five and get a win.”
Contact Adam Gruenewald at [email protected]