Second-year Our Redeemer's Christian School volleyball coach Kara Nunziato believes seniors are critical to a team's success, especially come postseason time.
Last season, the Knights' roster didn't include a single senior, yet they still finished 32-11 and took third in both the Region 6 and District 12 tournaments in what was thought to be a rebuilding year. Now, ORCS boasts three seniors - outside hitters Gabi Boeckel and Megan Hogue and middle blocker McKensie Popinga - but the expectations remain the same.
"My expectations still lie within playing a good fundamentally solid game," Nunziato said. "Whenever they step on the court, their passing form, their hitting form, all skill levels are down to the fundamentals. Not necessarily wins and losses. If you play a good, solid game, winning comes more naturally."
The Our Redeemer’s Christian School volleyball team brings back its full roster from 2013, when it took third at the Region 6 tourney.
Among the three seniors, Boeckel led the way with 187 kills, 80 aces and 303 digs last season. Popinga recorded 146 kills, 21 aces, 253 digs and 13 blocks and Hogue had 79 kills, 39 aces, 59 digs and 19 blocks.
"I think we're looking at a pretty good team this year," Hogue said. "We have three seniors. I think we're really going to do well. We have a lot of strong hitters and two really good setters."
While the seniors will be asked to provide leadership, ORCS' underclassmen will play a big role on the court. Outside hitter and setter Morgan Olson returns for her sophomore season following a year filled with postseason awards. Olson was an all-state, all-region and all-district selection and was a finalist for PrepVolleyball.com's National Freshman of the Year. She amassed team highs in kills (418) and digs (380), while compiling 307 assists and 59 aces.
Olson wasn't the only underclassman making a noticeable contribution last year. Sophomore middle blocker Makayla Gartner was an all-district selection with 352 kills and classmate Lauren Hendrickson anchored the back row defense with a team-high 466 digs as the libero. Freshman setter Karlee Zablotney compiled a team-best 773 assists.
"We've worked so hard, especially the younger girls," Popinga said. "I'm amazed at their dedication this early because personally we didn't do that much work in the summer when I was that young."
The Knights weren't the tallest team on the court last season, but this year they've added height to their bench with 5-foot-11 eighth-grader Cara Steede and 5-10 sophomore Calissa Ree to complement Popinga (5-11) and Gartner (5-11).
"We've improved quite a bit from last year," Boeckel said. "I'm excited to see where this season takes us. Our defense has improved tons. We've gotten more aggressive in every area. We didn't have a lot of height last year, but that's improved as well."
Perhaps the biggest advantage of returning their full roster is the team chemistry, which the Knights believe is stronger than it's ever been.
"It's so much better," Popinga said. "We've played together so much this summer. Even after basketball season, we started open gyms right away, so we've been playing with each other pretty much non-stop. We get along so well."
While the coaching staff won't measure success in wins and losses, the players' ultimate goal is to return to state. The Knights have been to the state tournament twice in program history, more recently in 2012. That squad also featured three seniors.
"Our expectations are that we just need to work really hard, focus on where we're at and also have the bigger picture in hand," Boeckel said. "Our goal is state, but we have to work on the game itself."
With defending region champion Mohall-Lansford-Sherwood losing all but one starter from last year's team, the region title is up for grabs. Des Lacs-Burlington and Bishop Ryan both pose a threat in the district, returning their top hitters.
"I always think our district and region is one of the strongest in our area and I just really think that time will tell," Nunziato said. "You never know until postseason play comes around."
The Knights get their first look at their region competition when they host Velva on Tuesday at 7 p.m. ORCS defeated the Aggies in straight sets in the region tournament quarterfinals last year.