Molly Aukes thought the Park Rapids volleyball team could compile a .500 record this season.
The Panthers were on pace to accomplish that goal, but nine straight losses to end the season prevented that from happening. In addition, five close losses during the season turned a possible .500 season into a 6-17 season.
"We had a very hard-working varsity team. We returned a large number of girls with varsity experience and they didn't allow themselves to use "being a young team" as an excuse," said Aukes. "Every day they practiced hard, so it was a frustrating season for this team because they had set higher expectations for themselves."
After opening the season with losses to Nevis (3-0), Walker-Hackensack-Akeley (3-1) and Frazee (3-1), the Panthers opened Mid-State Conference play by defeating Staples-Motley (3-0) and opened the Pine and Lakes tournament at Pine River with a win over Blackduck (2-0). A 2-0 loss to Parkers Prairie and a close 2-0 loss to Pequot Lakes were followed with a 2-0 win over Mahnomen as the Panthers split four matches at that tournament.
The Panthers defeated Menahga (3-1), but followed with a conference loss to Detroit Lakes (3-0), a close loss to Crookston (3-1) and another conference loss to Wadena-Deer Creek (3-0).
Back-to-back wins over Pine River-Backus (3-2) and Cass Lake (3-1) gave the Panthers a 6-8 overall record. At the Fergus Falls tournament, Park Rapids lost all four matches to start a season-ending nine-match losing streak. The Panthers lost a close match to Crookston (2-1), lost to Fergus Falls (2-0), lost a close match to Breckenridge (2-1) and lost to Detroit Lakes (2-0).
Park Rapids closed out the regular season with a loss to Thief River Falls (3-0), a close conference loss to Crosby-Ironton (3-2), another conference loss to Pequot Lakes (3-0) and a loss to East Grand Forks (3-1).
For the Section 8AA tournament, the Panthers received the No. 6 seed in the north half and were eliminated by No. 3 Roseau 3-0 in the first round. Wadena-Deer Creek defeated Thief River Falls in the section championship match.
Leading the Panthers this season were seniors Olivia Vaadeland, Erika Jerger and Katie Just; juniors Grace Bateman and Katelyn Hilmanowski; sophomores Shania Johnson, Justine Rittgers and Mady Vaudrin; and freshman Megan Grimes.
That group helped the Panthers earn a state Silver Academic Award for having a team GPA between 3.50 and 3.75.
Vaadeland, a middle hitter, earned all-conference honors and was named the Panthers' Offensive Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year after tallying a team-leading 152 kills, 92 blocks, 227 digs, 24 service aces and 111 service points in 73 sets. Vaadeland put 214 of 224 serves in play and successfully received 391 of 423 serves. Vaadeland also received the team's "The Wall" Blocking Award. Vaadeland led the team with single-match highs of 31 digs, 6.5 ace blocks and 14 kills. Vaadeland ended her four-year varsity career with 508 kills.
Grimes finished second on the team in kills with 95 and blocks with 41 and had 13 ace serves, 37 service points and 77 digs in 68 sets. Grimes, a middle hitter, put 72 of 89 serves in play and received 55 of 73 serves. Grimes was named the team's Most Improved Player.
Vaudrin, an outside hitter, finished third in kills with 58 and in blocks with 40. In 70 sets, Vaudrin put 39 of 44 serves in play with 23 points, received 82 of 100 serves and had 54 digs.
Hilmanowski, an outside hitter, played in 60 sets and finished fourth in kills with 55. Hilmanowski put 140 of 156 serves in play with 16 aces and 70 points and received 80 of 85 serves. Hilmanowski also had 89 digs and 13 blocks. Hilmanowski had a team-high six ace serves in a match.
Bateman and Johnson shared setting duties with Bateman earning the team's Hustle Award.
Bateman played in 73 sets and led the team with 218 set assists, including a team-high 18 in one match. Bateman put 191 of 205 serves in play with 16 ace serves and 106 points and received 47 of 61 serves. Bateman also had 51 kills and 153 digs.
Johnson was second in set assists with 152 and had a team-high 16 service points in a match. In 68 sets, Johnson put 208 of 220 serves in play with nine aces and 111 points and had 99 digs.
Jerger, a libero, played in 68 sets and put 156 of 165 serves in play with seven aces, received 205 of 248 serves and had 153 digs.
Rittgers, an outside hitter, had 62 digs, 50 kills and 20 blocks in 71 sets. Rittgers put 140 of 161 serves in play with 18 aces and 76 points and received 116 of 138 serves.
Just, a defensive specialist, played in 48 sets and went 59 for 63 in serves with seven aces and 43 points, received 71 of 78 serves and had 62 digs. Just also received all-state academic honors.
Also playing key roles for the Panthers this season were senior middle hitter Allie Bade, junior setter Ashley Thelen and sophomore outside hitter Morgan Dean.
Bade put 16 of 17 serves in play with three aces and 12 points. Bade also had six kills and 19 digs in 27 sets and received the team's Spirit Award and Coaches Award.
Dean went 18 for 23 in serve-receive and had eight kills and eight digs in 27 sets.
Thelen played in eight sets, putting 6 of 9 serves in play with an ace and a pair of points and tallying 12 set assists and nine digs.
Even though the Panthers graduate four key players, Aukes is looking for an improved season from the returning players next year.
"We had four seniors who had different backgrounds in volleyball. Olivia was with our high school program since the 8th grade. She led us in offense and defense for two years and worked hard on gaining skills needed to be a primary passer and play defense. Allie started in volleyball as a junior and learned a lot about the game. She was a very athletic player who contributed whenever she was asked and in whatever position was needed. Katie has been used in many different positions and often came in to serve. Erika has been a defensive specialist most of her high school career and handled a lot of serves. They were all excellent leaders and hard workers in practice. We put a lot of expectations on our seniors to help set the tone and attitude in the gym and this group of athletes met the challenge and are going to be missed," said Aukes. "We will return nine players with varsity experience, which is a benefit to starting strong next year. We will have a couple of key positions to fill. A couple of players will need to step into some primary passing positions and defense as well. Filling that will be crucial to us running anything quick tempo on offense. I will be looking for these girls to continue to increase the level of play. We need to come back into the gym ahead of where we left off, which means they will need to put some time in during the off-season."