Chasing the Knights

A look at this year’s District 12 volleyball contenders

Photos by Alex Eisen/MDN/MDN Des Lacs-Burlington outside hitter Kyley Lauf (11) stretches out for the ball in a Class B girls volleyball match played last season.

Volleyball season is back in full effect, and the road to crowning a Class B District 12 champion is underway.

That road to the title still runs through Our Redeemer’s Christian School. The Knights haven’t lost a district match since November of 2014, making them the favorites to claim what would be their fifth consecutive district title.

“Our program has been really successful the last four years,” ORCS head coach Kara Nunziato said. “It really sets the tone for this set of kids to follow in the footsteps of those who graduated.”

Among those players who have graduated are Ryleigh Popinga, Karlee Zablotney and Karolynn Winger. The dynamic senior trio carried the Knights all the way to the state semifinals last season before ultimately falling to LaMoure-Litchville-Marion.

But, with their departures, the baton has now been passed on to senior captain Tessa Olson. The 5-foot-4 libero is the team’s defensive anchor, making her a key weapon in the Knight’s arsenal.

“(Olson) is someone who can really lead the team not just with her defensive ability but with her comaraderie as well,” Nunziato said. “She keeps everyone’s emotions leveled, and she’s just a mentally tough athlete.”

Expectations are as high as ever for Olson and company, but Nunziato isn’t concerned with the hype. Rather, she’s challenged her players to improve on a day-to-day basis.

“We’re just going out there to play our best game every time,” Nunziato said. “We’re focusing on it literally one point at a time.”

One team chasing the Knights is Des Lacs-Burlington. The Lakers gave Our Redeemer’s a run for the district title last season, finishing just one game behind the Knights in the District 12 standings.

But this year will be different as DLB will be without Caitlyn Vogel. The star outside hitter graduated this past offseason, hanging up her red and white jersey with a career total of over 1,000 kills.

With Vogel no longer in the mix, it’ll take a group effort to follow up last season’s success with another strong year. The Lakers are returning just one senior, outside hitter Kyley Lauf.

Lauf will get plenty of opportunities to rack up a kill count of her own with the aid of Ava Wille. The 5-foot-3 setter does it all for DLB, digging balls and lining her teammates up for kills with precision assists.

The Lakers are loaded with young talent just like Wille, and they’ll look to challenge Our Redeemer’s for the throne once again.

One team looking to regain its footing in the race is Bishop Ryan. The Lions finished 16-21 last season, claiming fourth place in the district. The lackluster outing led to the departure of head coach Kaycee Grochow.

Replacing Grochow is Nick Theis. The fresh-faced, rookie head coach plans to draw from his assistant coaching experience at Our Redeemer’s Christian School, TGU and Minot High School to help get the Lions back on track.

“It was really exciting to get offered the job and take that next step forward,” Theis said. “We’re looking to try a different style of play here by pushing the ball a little bit faster and finding the open spots on the floor.”

Despite seeing four players graduate in the offseason, Theis’ group is returning four seniors and a number of other experienced players.

Leading the way for the Lions is senior Sealy Rovig, who missed a large chunk of last season due to injuries but is now back in the starting lineup.

Rovig is aided by the team’s emerging sophomore, Sylvie Kramer. The middle blocker had a strong showing at the 2018 Coal Country Invitational at Hazen High School on August 25, leading the Lions in kills.

It’s this balance of senior leadership and young talent that gives Theis plenty of optimism for the upcoming season.

“I feel like we have a really athletic group, and the girls are setting the bar high for this season,” Theis said. “It’ll be all about starting strong and pushing to the end, and I think the girls are buying into that.”

Among the other teams looking to elevate in the District 12 hierarchy is Lewis & Clark-Berthold. The Bombers finished third in district last season and are led by senior outside hitter Corina Pabian, an aggressive attacker with a serve that can rack up aces.

Glenburn High School will also look to carve out its niche in the pack. The Panthers finished fifth in last season’s district standings, but this season will be an uphill battle after seeing the departure of five seniors.

Grochow, the former Bishop Ryan head coach, is tasked with trying to change the culture as the new head coach for Surrey High School. The Mustangs went 2-5 in district play last season, but the return of four seniors gives the team plenty of veteran leadership.

Regardless of who emerges as this season’s district champs, one thing is for sure: it’ll be a hard-earned title.

Justin Martinez covers Minot High School and Class B high school sports. Follow him on Twitter @JTheSportsDude.