JONES: Region 6 volleyball title is wide open

Believe it or not, exactly one month from today (Aug. 14), high school volleyball teams around the state will begin practice.

And those teams are about six weeks away from the first matches of the season.

While there is always excitement and optimism at the beginning of a new year, that sentiment may never be more true than in Class B Region 6 for the 2017 season.

The Our Redeemer’s Christian School volleyball team, the three-time Region 6 champion, has taken a bit of a hit with the graduation of all-state performers Lauren Hendrickson and Morgan Olson.

During the Knights’ three-year run, ORCS finished second at state twice, while finishing fourth in 2015. The Knights piled up more than 80 wins combined in the previous two seasons.

During the 2016 season, ORCS compiled 1,276 kills, of which 344 were recorded by Olson.

Olson and Hendrickson also combined for 149 of the Knights’ 323 aces.

ORCS will also be without junior Cara Steede, who moved to Minnesota with her family. Steede finished with 230 kills and 46 blocks.

Also gone to graduation is Mikayla Gartner, who was second on the team in kills with 232.

If you are thinking to yourself, ‘Boy, that’s a lot to make up for,’ you’re right, it is.

I’m not sure there’s another volleyball team in the state, at the Class B level, that has lost as much as ORCS.

So, the obvious question becomes who will win the Region 6 title?

In my view, the region is wide open.

But let’s be clear, it would be a mistake to totally write off ORCS. The Knights do have some returning players that have played on the state’s biggest stage.

In the past, I observed ORCS’s Ryleigh Popinga kill the ball as hard as I have ever seen. It’s easy to assume that will only continue into her senior season.

While Bishop Ryan did lose three key players to graduation last year in Shayla Elm, Emma Garber and Holly Burckhard, the Lions do have plenty of talent coming back, which includes 6-foot-2 sophomore Annika Stewart and senior McKinlee Harmon.

It should also be noted that, at least in the eyes of this sports writer, the Lions played ORCS as tough as anyone in the region did all of last season.

I do think the Lions have a slight edge on winning the region title. However, the games are won on the court.

Ryan will be pushed by both Des Lacs-Burlington and Rugby this season in quest for the region title.

The Panthers were the Region 6 runner-up in 2016, losing to ORCS in the region championship in three games.

Rugby has several key returning players, including seniors Madison Uhlenkamp and Sara Stier and junior Maria Blessum. That experience will make the Panthers a real factor in the region.

Never count out Des Lacs-Burlington. The Lakers always seem to put a team together that can make a run in the postseason. Senior Caitlyn Vogel had a tremendous year in 2016, and one would think her senior season will only be better.

However, if I had to guess, I’d say Rugby and Bishop Ryan will be playing for the region title this fall. I won’t make a prediction on a winner just yet. But to be clear, I could easily see ORCS and DL-B playing for the region title as well.

Just think, in a month’s time it will all start to unfold. It will be fun to watch.

This is the opinion of Mark Jones, who covers high school sports and general assignments. Follow him on Twitter @MarkJones27_MDN.