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Prep volleyball: Southwest Minnesota volleyball talent is easy to find

JACKSON -- The peaks and valleys of athletic success influence every high school athletic program, but the best programs seem to just roll along more or less unaffected.

JACKSON -- The peaks and valleys of athletic success influence every high school athletic program, but the best programs seem to just roll along more or less unaffected.

In a highly competitive southwest Minnesota volleyball domain, rivals have no doubt wondered when the Jackson County Central Huskies might begin to appear more average than overwhelming. Well, don’t expect that to happen in 2016.

Head coach Deidre Wierson believes the Huskies can be overpowering once more.

“We’re definitely looking good,” she said this week as the team prepared for its season opener Monday at Mankato East High School.

JCC graduated one of its All-Big South Conference players, Sydney Nyborg, from its hard-hitting 2015 outfit, but two all-conference players are back -- senior outside hitter Abby Benson and senior setter-hitter Lacey Wacker. The 6-1 Benson, a commanding presence at the net, has already made a verbal commitment to Augustana University in Sioux Falls. Wacker, the floor leader, has committed verbally to Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa.

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Other key players include 5-foot-5 junior setter Lauren Murphy, 5-foot-10 junior middle hitter Tiara Menke, 5-foot-11 right-middle hitter Alexa Palmer and 5-foot-8 senior outside hitter Kayla O’Connor. There are more promising players rising in the ranks, Wierson said, and if the veterans can find cohesion with the newcomers JCC’s fortunes appear as bright as ever.

The Huskies’ 2015 season ended with a four-game loss to Martin County West in the South Section 3AA finals, which still rankles Wierson.

“We are definitely hungry and ready for redemption, the way the season ended last year,” Wierson said. “What we’re training at now is to always want more, to never settle.”

Though Wierson is contemplating some subtle changes in strategy, she believes that the key to success is to keep it simple -- to, in her words, “utilize what we’re good at, the offensive game.”

Getting on the attack, taking advantage of their tall hitters, plus maintaining focus, is what Wierson hopes the Huskies can do throughout the season. The team didn’t play well enough defensively in its upset loss to MCW, said the coach, so maintaining mental toughness is a primary goal this year.

All around southwest Minnesota, strong volleyball programs appear poised for more success this fall. As usual, no one can overlook Tracy-Milroy-Balaton, which qualified for its second straight Class A state tournament last season. The Panthers placed fourth overall, losing to Heritage Christian Academy 3-2 in the third-place game. Junior setter Gabbie Gervais and sophomore hitter Sydney Lanoue were both members of the All-State first team.

Windom Area should be dangerous again with first-team All-State selection Porsha Porath leading the way. Now a junior, the 6-foot-1 Porath racked up 314 kills and 63 solo blocks and served at 92 percent as a sophomore.

“We feel that she can take over the match when she’s in the front row for us,” said Windom Area head coach Ron Wendorff.

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The Eagles also return All-Big South Conference outside hitter Madison Maras. A senior, Maras is an excellent all-around performer and floor leader.

Senior Sydnee Broberg (libero) and sophomore Becca Hacker (right hitter) round out the list of vets who should make the Eagles a team on everyone’s radar.

Wendorff says the setter position is his squad’s most inexperienced area, and ball control will be important if the team is to enjoy success. “Hopefully we can blend together some veterans, and hopefully our young bloods will blend together,” said the coach.

In the always-competitive Red Rock Conference, Southwest Minnesota Christian emerged last year with a perfect 10-0 record. Red Rock Central placed second with a 9-1 mark, followed by Westbrook-Walnut Grove at 7-3. Heron Lake-Okabena and Hills-Beaver Creek finished in the upper half with identical 6-4 records.

Of those teams, Southwest Minnesota Christian lost the most firepower to graduation. All five of the Eagles’ all-conference players, in fact (Hope Veldkamp, Cassie Groen, Ann Pater, Maci Kruisselbrink and Kassydi Vreeman), were seniors in 2015.

Even so, longtime rivals know that Southwest cannot be overlooked. Head coach Brian Busker has proven to be adept at re-assembling his chess pieces quickly.

This year, he’ll have his work cut out for him. He only has four seniors on the team.

“We got a bigger turnover than we’re accustomed to,” he admitted this week. “We’re not going to have the putaway power that we had in the past, so we’re going to have to rely on placement.”

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Fortunately for the Eagles, they do return senior setter Leah Buys, a solid floor leader and the team’s most consistent server. Sydney Van Hulzen, a junior middle hitter, will be a primary presence up front.

Red Rock Central returns all-conference hitter Rachel Kedl, a 5-foot-11 senior with poise and power. The team’s other returning all-conference player, however, libero Taylor Price, is out for the season due to a knee injury she sustained in June while playing basketball.

Nevertheless, coach Sara Arfsten believes the Falcons can win the conference in 2016. A strong nucleus returns after the graduation of only two seniors.

Having Kedl back is a big plus. “I think Rachel is one of the strongest middles in our area. She’s got a very quick arm swing. She’s just a very quick player,” Arfsten said. “And she can hit any shot on the net. And she also does very well in blocking.”

RRC is changing its offensive scheme from a 5-1 to a 6-2. Arfsten said using two setters creates an advantage in always having three hitters on the front row. The key will be getting the hitters to gain an easy familiarity with two setters rather than one.

Westbrook-Walnut Grove will have to re-tool without graduated two-time first team All-Daily Globe setter Abby Herding, who amassed an outstanding 2,747 set assists in her career.

Heron Lake-Okabena is another team to watch, though it graduated an outstanding hitter in second-team All-Area selection Andrea Hinkeldey.

Several Red Rock Conference coaches are saying Hills-Beaver Creek, whose two all-conference players (Avery Van Roekel and Jasmine Lingen) were juniors in 2015, is a team on the rise. Pipestone Area gets a few nods as a team to watch in the Big South Conference.

Who else might surprise is still to be determined. Surely, there are many prep volleyball fans in the area who would give a thumbs-up to Wierson’s recent comment about the wealth of area talent.

“I really like our southwest corner. I really think we bring a lot of competitive volleyball around here,” she said.

Related Topics: VOLLEYBALL
Doug Wolter joined the Worthington Globe in December of 1983 as a sports reporter. He later became sports editor, and then news editor and managing editor. In 2006 he moved to Mankato with his wife, Sandy, and served as an editor at the Mankato Free Press. In 2013 he and Sandy returned to Worthington to take up the job of sports editor at The Globe, and they have been in Worthington since.

Doug can be reached at dwolter@dglobe.com.
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