Panthers accepted challenging roles
Having only two regulars returning from last year's team that went 15-11, Molly Aukes wasn't sure how the junior varsity players would adjust to playing key roles at the varsity level.
As it turned out, 15 players saw varsity action this season with 11 playing varsity for the first time. Those players accepted their roles and put a competitive unit on the floor as the Panthers went 2-3 in Mid-State Conference matches and 8-23 overall.
Park Rapids opened the season with seven losses as the new players adjusted to varsity competition. The Panthers went 0-4 at the Albany tournament with losses to Maple Lake (25-23, 25-19), Albany (25-12, 25-14), Little Falls (25-19, 23-25, 15-7) and Minnewaska (25-20, 25-8).
After losses to Nevis (25-9, 25-8, 25-14), Walker-Hackensack-Akeley (25-15, 25-17, 25-20) and Frazee (25-10, 22-25, 26-24, 25-16), the Panthers defeated Staples-Motley (25-11, 25-20, 25-16) in the conference opener.
The Panthers split six matches at the Pequot Lakes/Pine River-Backus Invitational. Park Rapids lost to Onamia (27-25, 25-18), defeated Sebeka (23-25, 25-22), defeated Staples-Motley (25-20, 25-21), defeated Cass Lake (25-23, 25-18), lost to Pine River-Backus (19-25, 25-17, 15-4) and lost to Onamia (25-12, 25-20).
A five-match losing streak followed as the Panthers lost to Menahga (25-18, 16-25, 25-23, 25-13), Detroit Lakes (25-17, 25-16, 25-13) in a conference match, Crookston (25-14, 25-21, 25-18), Wadena-Deer Creek (25-16, 25-4, 25-19) in a Mid-State match and Pine River-Backus (25-13, 25-13, 25-18).
A win over Cass Lake (25-15, 25-16, 23-25, 25-17) ended that slide before the Panthers lost matches to Thief River Falls (25-13, 25-16, 25-15) and Crosby-Ironton (25-19, 25-14, 25-13) in conference play.
At the Nevis tournament, the Panthers opened with wins over Cass Lake (25-16, 25-12) and Sebeka (25-18, 21-25) before dropping matches to Pine River-Backus (25-21, 25-20), Long Prairie-Grey Eagle (25-21, 25-22), Nevis (25-12, 25-14) and Sebeka (25-21, 25-13) to finish fourth.
After closing the conference schedule with a win over Pequot Lakes (19-25, 25-20, 25-23, 26-28, 15-13), the Panthers ended the regular season with a loss to East Grand Forks (25-22, 25-21, 25-13).
Park Rapids entered the north half of the Section 8AA tournament as the No. 8 seed and lost to No. 1 Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton (25-11, 25-7, 25-12). D-G-F lost to Wadena-Deer Creek in the section title match. W-DC went on to win the state Class AA title to cap off a 33-0 season.
For the season, the Panthers put 90.1 percent of their serves in play and averaged 5.3 ace serves and 16.2 kills per match.
"The starting team didn't have a lot of time on the varsity court, but had a lot of time together on JV last year," said Aukes. "We had a lot of success at tournaments this season. The girls were able to handle the physical challenge of playing six matches in one day and were mentally tough to pull out some important wins. At the varsity level we had no injuries and that speaks to the way these girls had conditioned and prepared themselves for the season. Many of them put in a lot of time this summer in the conditioning program and that was a huge benefit to our program."
Leading the Panthers this season were the 10 letterwinners: seniors Ashley Domino, Anna Grimes, Marisa Rittgers and Lizzy Vaudrin; juniors Olivia Vaadeland and Katie Just; sophomores Grace Bateman and Amber Booge; and freshmen Justine Rittgers and Mady Vaudrin.
Vaadeland returned as the only starter after playing in all 82 games last season. Domino played in 43 games while Vaudrin (three games) and Grimes (one game) saw limited varsity action last fall. Grimes, Marisa Rittgers and Lizzy Vaudrin served as captains this year while Grimes and Rittgers received all-state academic honors. The Panthers also received an all-state Academic Gold Award for having a team GPA between 3.75 and 4.00.
Vaadeland earned all-conference honors and received the team's Digger Award, "The Wall" Blocking Award and "The Hammer" Hitting Award after leading the Panthers with 253 digs, 102 total blocks (61 solo blocks and 41 assisted blocks) and 180 kills. Vaadeland put 92.1 percent of her serves in play (245 for 266) with 19 aces and 113 points and led the team by receiving 435 of 572 serves in 31 matches as a middle and outside hitter.
Domino also earned all-conference honors and received the team's Coaches Award after finishing second on the team with 81 kills and third with 125 digs. In 24 matches, Domino put 82 of 104 serves in play with 11 aces and 39 points. Domino also received 196 of 221 serves and had 13 solo blocks as an outside and right-side hitter.
Grimes played in 30 matches and put 229 of 245 serves in play (93.5 percent) with 33 aces and 103 points and finished second on the team with 181 digs and third on the team with 75 kills. Grimes also had 13 solo blocks and a team-high 43 assisted blocks as a middle hitter.
Lizzy Vaudrin handled the majority of the setting chores, leading the team with 189 set assists and finishing second with 126 service points. Vaudrin put 242 of 281 serves in play with 29 aces and had 72 digs in 30 matches.
Marisa Rittgers also played in 30 matches and led the team with 135 service points. Rittgers put 239 of 259 serves in play (92.3 percent) with 23 aces and had 48 kills and 123 digs as an outside hitter.
Just saw action in 29 matches as a setter, right-side hitter and defensive specialist. Just put 186 of 199 serves in play (93.5 percent) with 22 aces and 87 points. Just also had 82 set assists and 111 digs.
Bateman played 31 matches as an outside hitter and setter, putting 47 of 54 serves in play with 23 points, 48 set assists, 46 kills and 64 digs. Bateman received the team's Hustle Award and Spirit Award.
Booge served as a defensive specialist, tallying 41 digs in 23 matches.
Justine Rittgers was named the team's Most Improved Player after tallying nine ace serves and 41 service points while putting 66 of 70 serves in play (94.3 percent). Rittgers also had 21 kills and 46 digs in 27 matches as an outside hitter.
Mady Vaudrin also played outside hitter and put 79 of 91 serves in play with 11 aces and 52 points. Vaudrin also had 34 kills and 56 digs.
Also seeing some varsity time this season were junior Erika Jerger, sophomore Ashley Thelen, and freshmen McKenna Brand, Shania Johnson and Bailee Jerger.
"I had a group of players that were very hard working and coachable. They were very receptive and supportive of the young players we brought up. They trusted each other and didn't panic in the tough matches," said Aukes. "We had a number of players that helped us out; some as starters, some as positional players. Emotionally, this team did a great job of supporting teammates, whether on the bench or on the floor."
Next season the Panthers will have four key seniors to replace. However, the experience gained by the underclassmen should provide Aukes with another competitive team next fall.
"We will continue to learn, grow and develop as a team," said Aukes. "The underclassmen were very supportive, but also eager. They are aggressive, competitive and willing to learn. They were very willing to try our offense and that will benefit us next year."