It was an offseason of change for the Our Redeemer's Christian School volleyball program, headlined by the resignation of coach Sherry Carlson in April and the graduation of Ashley Koppinger, Emily VanLith and Billie Bangen.
Carlson and the three seniors led the Knights to their second state tournament appearance in program history, finishing fifth to cap off a 36-win season. This year's roster features just two starters from last season - junior outside hitter Gabi Boeckel and freshman setter Morgan Olson - and no seniors. But the team's youth could be its biggest strength.
"We have a lot of new talent coming up that a lot of people don't know about," said Boeckel, a team captain. "We have good hitters coming up and we'll be good on defense. We're working on our serving and serve receive."
Our Redeemer’s Christian School junior captain Gabi Boeckel digs a ball during practice at ORCS last week. The Knights open their season tonight at Velva.
The 10-player roster features two eighth-graders, three freshmen, one sophomore and four juniors. Leading the youth movement is coach Kara Nunziato, a 2006 ORCS graduate, who will make her coaching debut at 7 p.m. today at Velva. Nunziato played on the Knights' state runner-up squad in 2004 and is looking forward to the challenge of coaching a young team.
"It's going to be a fun year," Nunziato said. "It's a great atmosphere in the gym this year. I couldn't ask for a better group of girls. Last year we lost three big seniors so we have three huge voids to fill. The girls have been working hard to pick up where we left off. It is more of a building year for us, but they have a heart for the game."
Nunziato played two years at Williston State College before returning to the ORCS program, where she served as an assistant under Carlson for the last three seasons.
Meet the Knights
Juniors - Megan Hogue, McKensie Popinga, Gabi Boeckel, Jocci Ebel
Sophomore - Samiah Grigsby
Freshmen - Lauren Hendrickson, Morgan Olson, MaKayla Gartner
Eighth-graders - Ryleigh Popinga, Karlee Zablotney
September - 3, at Velva, 7 p.m.; 7, at Hazen Invite, TBA; 10, at Hazen, 6:30 p.m.; 14, at Casselton tournament, TBA; 17, vs. Bottineau, 7 p.m.; 19, at Glenburn, 7 p.m.; 24, vs. Des Lacs-Burlington, 7 p.m.; 26, vs. Kenmare, 7 p.m.; 27-28, at Dickinson tournament, TBA.
October - 1, at Bishop Ryan, 7 p.m.; 4-5, at Laker Invite, TBA; 8, vs. Berthold, 7 p.m.; 10, vs. Surrey, 7 p.m.; 15, at Mohall-Lansford-Sherwood, 7 p.m.; 22, at Des Lacs-Burlington; 26, vs. Trinity Christian, 5 p.m.
November - 1-5, District 12 tournament at Mohall, TBA; 11-14, Region 6 tournament at Minot Municipal Auditorium, TBA; 21-23, State tournament at MSU Dome, TBA.
"All my playing abilities came from Sherry Carlson and (former ORCS coach) Brooke Storro," she said. "My coaching philosophy follows Carlson's. She's taught me how to be a coach and how to be a player."
Carlson will continue to offer assistance to the program she started in 1996, helping Nunziato and assistant coach Brittany Jacobsen during practice.
On the court, the Knights are looking for new faces to step up and help replace the production lost from last year's seniors, most notably Koppinger, an all-state selection last year. Koppinger, now a freshman at U-Mary, compiled 679 kills, 396 digs, 119 blocks and 103 aces last season.
"It'll be different than last year, but I don't think that our skill level has gone down one bit," said Olson, ORCS' other captain. "There are a lot of freshmen stepping up and I think we'll be a very skilled team this year."
Said Nunziato: "Those girls were their role models. They want to come out and be as strong as they were. That's what they're trying to achieve, ultimately."
The young Knights will be tested early at the Hazen Invite on Saturday and the Casselton Tournament on Sept. 14. ORCS plays its home opener against Region 6 runner-up Bottineau on Sept. 17.
Mike Kraft covers high school athletics, the Minot Minotauros and the Minot State men's club hockey team. Follow him on Twitter @MKraft23_MDN.