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Elzenga ready for Ridgewater

File Photo Westbrook-Walnut Grove's Taylor Elzenga digs a spike during a volleyball match last season in this file photo.1 / 2
File Photo Elzenga goes up for a kill during a Section 3A match last season.2 / 2

WILLMAR -- Ridgewater College head volleyball coach Joe Sussenguth doesn't remember exactly how long ago it was that he first saw Taylor Elzenga play.

However, back then he already knew that she was a player he should keep an eye on.

Before taking his current position in 2006, Sussenguth was the head coach at Minneota High School and used to help at Southwest Minnesota State University volleyball camps. Since then he has kept tabs on southwest Minnesota's top talent and Elzenga has been no exception.

"She was someone who I always kept a lookout for," Sussenguth said. "When I'd go recruiting to some of the tournaments down in that area, I always made a note to try to go watch her play."

Sussenguth will now have a chance to help Elzenga realize the full potential he has seen in her after she decided to continue her career with the Warriors after graduating from Westbrook-Walnut Grove High School this spring.

"The thing I like about Taylor is she's a very versatile player," Sussenguth said. "She's got a very pure arm swing, she's a fast-twitch (muscle) fiber kid, which makes her explosive and quick to the ball, and she's had a ton of varsity experience. I think she's just scratching at the surface of what her potential at the college level can be -- I think it can be outstanding."

Elzenga knew for a while that she wanted to play volleyball at the college level after proving herself as a dominant hitter and solid all-rounder for the Chargers.

Ridgewater had been on her radar well before she started her senior season this fall, and when she visited she found that both the school and the volleyball program fit what she was looking for.

"They were one of my options at the beginning of the year," Elzenga said. "After the season got over with I took my visit and ended up liking it. They have a great program. I just decided it's what I liked the best and decided to go with Ridgewater."

After losing eight sophomores from his National Junior College Athletic Association Division III national title winning team from last season, Sussenguth was looking to bring in a recruiting class of players that could compete for a starting position immediately.

He feels that Elzenga will prove to be just such a player.

"She has a lot of assets for us to use her at a lot of different positions," Sussenguth said. "To have that type of versatility for us when we graduated eight sophomores over this past season is huge. We'll have a lot of kids battling for spots and I'm expecting her to be in the mix for sure."

In Sussenguth's five years at the helm, the Warriors have been to the national championships every single year. During that time they haven't finished any worse than third, winning the national title in 2006 in addition to last year and finishing as runners-up in 2007 and 2008.

"We pride ourself on the competitive level that we've had over the past number of years and we definitely are on track," Sussenguth said. "I think our incoming freshmen know what our expectations are as far as our goals for this year as well.

"We work very hard at it, but at the end of the day too, with us being a junior college and not able to give out athletic scholarships, I want to make sure that the experience is good for them and that they have a good time playing volleyball. They're essentially playing for the love of the game for the most part."

The recent success of the program was certainly a positive draw for Elzenga.

"I am really excited," Elzenga said. "It's an honor to play on a team that's gone to nationals. Just to be on a good program like that, it's a good opportunity."

Natalie Ross, who coached Elzenga from eighth grade all the way through her senior season, knows that Elzenga will be the kind of player Sussenguth can count on to do whatever is necessary to help maintain the success of the Ridgewater program.

Although Elzenga's natural tendency is to play at outside hitter, when Ross asked her to play at middle hitter for the Chargers she never gave any objections.

"She's the kind of athlete that you ask her to do something and she's like, 'OK,'" Ross said. "There's no second thought about it, she just does it, whatever's best for the team and coach."

Sussenguth hasn't decided where Elzenga will be the best fit for the Warriors yet, but said he would feel comfortable with her at any position in his front line, including as a right-side hitter, where she would be responsible for blocking the opponents' top hitters.

Ross learned early in her time with Elzenga that she possessed not only great natural skill, but also the right attitude to improve, being constantly open to learning new things even as an eighth grader -- a trait Ross describes as the exception rather than the rule at that age.

"She's just one of those players that you could tell that she was going to be very good because she was very athletic, learned quickly, asked questions and then adjusted according to what you said," Ross said. "She just soaked up information. She was just willing to do anything to be better."

Ross has no doubts that Elzenga was destined to play at the college level.

"She's one of those special players that can go on after high school," Ross said. "From day one she just worked really hard and you could tell that she wanted to take it to the next level all the time, and this is the next level now."

With a program that has enjoyed such great success, Sussenguth has constantly had the opportunity to have players continue their careers even beyond Ridgewater. He has forged relations with four-year colleges in both the NAIA and NCAA throughout his tenure and makes it no secret to his players that the option is there for them to progress to a four-year school if it suits their academic and athletic goals.

"We make sure to let them know that the option is on the table for them if they progress here well academically and athletically," Sussenguth said. "If it's something that they can do and it fits with what their goals are academically we try to bridge that connection for them, or help them do it, anyway."

Elzenga hasn't yet thought that far ahead, but she said that, "If things go well and I have a good interest, I can see myself still wanting to play."

The Warriors' incoming class had team workouts to complete throughout the summer, but it was just last week that they got their first experience coming together as a team. They all came to Willmar last Tuesday to help with summer league, which takes place in the first two weeks on August on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Elzenga said that the first experience with the team went really well.

Sussenguth isn't surprised to see Elzenga meshing well with her new teammates.

"I think she's one of those players that's going to offer a lot to our team chemistry," Sussenguth said.

Elzenga doesn't know yet what she will focus her studies on at Ridgewater, but said that at the moment she is leaning toward healthcare administration.

Although she is now getting to know her teammates (including rooming with one) and there are some other familiar faces on campus for Elzenga with a few fellow W-WG grads also attending the school (including her other roommate), overall she is still getting used to the fact that her goal of being a college student-athlete has now very much become her new reality.

"I still fell like I'm in high school," Elzenga said. "It's crazy how time flies."