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Providing leadership for the Park Rapids volleyball team this season will be seniors (from left) Morgan Dean, Shania Johnson, Justine Rittgers and Mady Vaudrin.

Seniors looking to lead Panthers to winning mark

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  Molly Aukes is hoping this year’s senior class can spark the Park Rapids volleyball team to a successful season.

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     As eighth graders, Morgan Dean, Shania Johnson, Justine Rittgers and Mady Vaudrin capped off their junior high careers with an undefeated season. As seniors, those four are looking to cap off their varsity careers with a winning season.

     Those four, along with juniors Megan Grimes and Bria Wolff, return from last year’s team that went 1-4 in Mid-State Conference matches and 5-18-1 overall.

     Grimes returns as a starting middle hitter after earning all-conference honorable mention honors last season. Grimes played in all 71 sets and led the team with 113 kills and 48 solo blocks. Grimes went 119 for 139 in serves with 21 aces and 59 points and had 77 digs and 39 assisted blocks.

     Vaudrin returns as a starting middle hitter after playing in 67 sets and finishing second on the team with 90 service points, 85 kills and 27 solo blocks while leading the team with 43 assisted blocks. Vaudrin put 161 of 193 serves in play with 24 aces and had 97 digs.

     Johnson will be the starting setter after playing in 69 sets last season. Johnson was second on the team with 88 set assists and put 160 of 170 serves in play with 10 aces and 83 points. Johnson also had 12 kills and 75 digs.

     Rittgers played in 67 sets as an outside hitter and led the team with 198 digs. Rittgers went 168 for 197 in serves with 14 aces and 87 points and had 40 kills and 15 assisted blocks.

     Wolff played in 21 sets as a middle hitter and went 9 for 11 in serves and had 15 kills, 12 digs, six solo blocks and eight assisted blocks.

     Dean saw action in 10 sets and went 12 for 12 in serves with 6 points and contributed three kills. Dean will start as an outside hitter.

     “This group of seniors is very athletic and has played together for a few years now. Our squad is currently very small and because of this, the players have developed a unique relationship on the court. They continue to push each other and will continue to all season,” said Aukes, who will be assisted by Marion Goeden and Jackie Griffin. “Our middles (Vaudrin and Grimes) bring a lot of experience to the net. We look to them to lead us in blocks and to quicken up our offense. They are both athletic with great verticals and will bring a lot of power to their attack this season. Shania will lead us in a 5-1 this season. She has the experience to make great setting choices while running the floor. Our outsides (Rittgers and Dean) will also bring excitement to the net. They are smart players who have the tools necessary to make plays happen.”

     The Panthers graduated eight players from last year’s team. Setter Grace Bateman earned all-conference honors after leading the team with 147 set assists, 38 ace serves and 113 service points while finishing second with 160 digs in 70 sets. Ashley Thelen played in 69 sets as a defensive specialist and had 143 digs. Katelyn Hilmanowski played in 64 sets and had 27 ace serves, 58 service points and 48 kills as an outside hitter. Tonya Melott (defensive specialist), Alyana Young (right-side hitter), Brighton Robbins (outside hitter), Katie Olson (right-side hitter) and Katlyn Zaske (defensive specialist) combined for 74 digs, 43 service points and 24 kills.

     Looking to fill those spots will be sophomore middle hitter Sarah Harshman, sophomore setter Sydney Bynum and freshman right-side hitter Emily Dean.

     “We believe that Emily will compete for that starting position at right-side hitter and we look to Sydney and Sarah to help us out coming off the bench. Sydney can help us at any position and Sarah is looking to help us at middle hitter and outside hitter,” said Aukes. “This team is unique in that they have all been driven to be complete players. They can all play various positions and have worked to be good passers and play defense.”

     With 32 players, the Panthers have the luxury of fielding four teams. Starting the season on junior varsity will be juniors Vanessa Kangas (defensive specialist) and Dezzy Ceminski (middle hitter); sophomores Paige Hill (outside hitter), Caitlin Brumbaugh (middle hitter), Madi Wagner (setter) and Gabie Johnson (middle hitter); and freshman Mackenzie Warne (setter). The B squad will feature sophomores Kylie Higgins, Tonya Yliniemi, Dana McDonald,  Bailee Hoffard, Talya Smith and Kassarra Adams and freshman Isabel Bagstad while the C squad will feature freshmen Sarah Gorder, Elizabeth Bradt, Olivia Fischer, Chelsea Swenson, Tatum Mercer, Mikayla Hensel, Ally Vaudrin, Brooke Jerger and Kayla Branstrom.

     “We continue to see our program grow in numbers and providing meaningful game opportunities has been a priority for our program. We are fortunate to have four teams this season, which will allow players time in competition to use the skills they are working on. We continue to challenge players to push themselves and others in practice to help our program improve. There are opportunities for players to move up and help us at the varsity level, but they will have to earn it,” said Aukes. “This team is driven to improve their individual skills and their team play. We continue to stress serve receive and defense. We will need players to be aggressive servers, consistent passers and develop the instinct to fight for every point. We must limit our errors. We expect some very exciting offensive plays, but to win more games we have to pass and play defense.”

     Wadena-Deer Creek won the Mid-State Conference title with a 5-0 record while Pequot Lakes went 4-1 last season. Thief River Falls defeated W-DC in the Section 8AA championship match. Park Rapids entered the section tournament as the No. 7 seed in the north and was eliminated in the first round.

     Joining the Panthers in the north half of Section 8AA will be Crookston, Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton, East Grand Forks, Hawley, Roseau, TRF and Warroad. In the south half are Barnesville, Breckenridge, Fergus Falls, Frazee, Pelican Rapids, Pequot Lakes, Perham and W-DC.

     This year’s team is looking to move up in the conference standings and advance past the first round of the section tournament.

     “In our conference, we will face a tough Pequot Lakes team along with Wadena-Deer Creek, but we have the talent to compete with these teams. We will face some great volleyball teams in our section. TRF and Wadena continue to be solid programs with an eye on returning to state. D-G-F is also a contender,” said Aukes. “We have the experience and talent to improve our record from last season. This team wants to go farther into the playoffs than any other team has. We need to take one match at a time, focus on playing together as a team and enjoy every opportunity to compete together.”

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