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Shelby Weckwerth had 358 digs to set a school record for the Park Rapids volleyball team this season. (Vance Carlson / Enterprise)

Accepting roles keyed Panthers' success

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Last season, the Park Rapids volleyball team opened the season with five straight losses and couldn't recover in ending the season with a 9-17 record.

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This season, Park Rapids again opened the season with a 0-5 record. However, this time the Panthers were able to turn things around by going 14-3 in their next 17 matches to end the season with a 15-11 overall record.

The 15 wins just missed the school record of 16 set in 1980 (16-2) and matched in 2004 (16-9). However, the Panthers broke three school records, finished second in the Mid-State Conference with a 4-1 mark, won the Nevis tournament title, received the No. 3 seed and a home playoff match for the Section 8AA tournament and ended the season with a winning record.

All those accomplishments made the 2009 season a huge success.

The Panthers got off to a slow start by losing matches to Minnewaska (2-1), Rocori (2-0), Maple Lake (2-0) and Albany (2-1) at the Albany tournament. A close 3-2 loss to Nevis gave Park Rapids a 0-5 record.

Winning the close sets over the next 17 matches helped turn the season around.

Park Rapids reeled off six consecutive wins by sweeping Pequot Lakes in a conference match, Frazee and Crosby-Ironton in another conference match. The Panthers then opened the Pequot Lakes/Pine River-Backus tournament by defeating Onamia 2-0, Blackduck 2-0 and Pine River-Backus 2-1. Sebeka edged the Panthers 2-1 in the title match.

A pair of 3-0 wins over Menahga and Thief River Falls in a section match gave the Panthers an 8-6 record.

After dropping a pair of 3-1 decisions to section foe Crookston and conference rival Wadena-Deer Creek, the Panthers strung together another six-match winning streak.

The Panthers battled back to defeat Pine River-Backus 3-2, controlled Cass Lake-Bena 3-0 and defeated Detroit Lakes 3-1 in a conference match.

At the Nevis tournament, the Panthers defeated Verndale 2-0, Cromwell 2-1 and Nevis 2-1 to claim the title and improve to 14-8 on the season.

Park Rapids sandwiched a 3-0 conference win over Staples-Motley between a pair of 3-1 section losses to Walker-Hackensack-Akeley and East Grand Forks to end the regular season with a 15-10 record.

The Panthers received the No. 3 seed in the section playoffs, but a 3-0 loss to No. 6 Warroad prevented a trip to the subsection semifinals.

"We had a very successful season," said Park Rapids head coach Molly Aukes. "We met many of our goals, including beating Detroit Lakes, winning the Nevis tournament and being ranked third in the subsection to host a playoff game."

Leading the Panthers this season were the 11 letterwinners: seniors Hailey Lundin, Jenny Palm, Taylor Smythe, Shannon Taylor, Leeza Tostenson, Brie Warne, Shelby Weckwerth and Hannah Wolff; junior Ashley Domino; sophomore Olivia Vaadeland; and eighth grader Megan Norby. Also seeing some varsity time were juniors Lizzy Vaudrin and Anna Grimes.

That group compiled 1,132 total kills (service aces, attack kills and block kills) to break the school record of 1,049 set in 2000.

Palm, who took over as the starting setter, set a school record with 433 set assists, breaking Heather Tretbar's 2004 single-season record of 404.

Weckwerth also broke a school record, tallying 358 digs to break Shelly Hinkley's 1992 record of 256. Lundin (278) and Norby (298) also surpassed the old record.

In addition, Lundin, Weckwerth and Norby received all-conference honors while Wolff and Vaadeland were all-conference honorable mention players. Palm received all-state academic honors while the team received an all-state academic Silver Award.

Team honors went to Vaadeland (Most Improved Player and Blocking Award), Palm and Weckwerth (Hustle Award), Warne (Team Spirit Award), Norby (Hitting Award), Weckwerth (Digging Award) and Taylor (Coaches Award).

"Our key to success this year was we were a team. Many players moved to new positions to benefit the team. All the players understood their role on this team and the parents supported the players all season," said Aukes. "It takes coaches, players and parents believing in the program and our goals to have a successful season."

For the season, the Panthers put 90 percent of their serves in play with 222 aces. Lundin and Norby shared the team lead with 51 aces while Palm (34), Wolff (29), Weckwerth (24) and Smythe (18) followed.

The Panthers tallied 751 attack kills with Norby's 240, Wolff's 156, Vaadeland's 115 and Lundin's 113 leading the way. Tostenson had 66 kills, Palm had 40 kills and Domino had 13 kills.

In addition to Palm's 433 set assists, Smythe had 119 set assists, Tostenson had 19 set assists and Domino had 12 set assists as the Panthers finished the season with 611 set assists.

Park Rapids tallied 1,431 digs with Weckwerth, Norby and Lundin leading the way. Palm had 201 digs, Tostenson had 89 digs, Wolff had 75 digs, Vaadeland had 42 digs, Smythe had 35 digs, Taylor had 29 digs and Domino had 21 digs.

Vaadeland led the Panthers with 30 solo blocks and 31 assists while Wolff had 20 solo blocks and 45 assists. Norby had 11 solo blocks and 16 assists, Tostenson had four solo blocks and 24 assists, Lundin had five solo blocks and 20 assists, Domino had two solo blocks and 11 assists, Palm had three solo blocks and seven assists, and Smythe had four solo blocks and five assists.

"These seniors have been together many years. They know each other and really have fun together," said Aukes. "Their passion for the game, desire to be better and work ethic will leave a legacy of what our program needs. The school records set says a lot about this team and how hard work can pay off. This was a very special team."

Even though the Panthers graduate eight key players, Aukes is looking for the returning varsity letterwinners and the junior varsity players to step up and produce another successful season in 2010.

"My expectations begin where we left off. I don't want the girls to regress, but to come in ready to play volleyball," said Aukes. "I am fortunate to have two players (Vaadeland and Norby) who played every game returning. They will lead our offense. The juniors played a lot of JV together and work very well together. Their chemistry, attitude and willingness to work hard give me many reasons to believe next year's team wants to continue to build and improve and play at a high level. We have a number of girls who will play Junior Olympic volleyball this winter and spring and the time and work they put into the off-season will pay off for us next year."

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