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Graduation leaves key spots to fill

Leading the Park Rapids volleyball team this season will be seniors (from left) Michelle Ford (manager, Anna Grimes, Marissa Rittgers, Lizzy Vaudrin, Ashley Domino, Sophie Shogren, Eryn Simpson (manager).

Team chemistry was a main reason last year's Park Rapids volleyball team had one of its most successful seasons in school history.

Developing team chemistry will be the key to success for the Panthers again this fall.

With only two letterwinners returning from last year's team that finished with a 15-11 record, head coach Molly Aukes will be counting on several first-year varsity players to step into key roles.

Those players have to fill in for last year's senior class of Hailey Lundin, Shelby Weckwerth, Hannah Wolff, Jenny Palm, Leeza Tostenson, Taylor Smythe, Shannon Taylor and Brie Warne.

Lundin and Weckwerth received Mid-State Conference honors while Wolff was an all-conference honorable mention player. Lundin led the team with 51 ace serves and 169 service points while tallying 113 kills and 278 digs. Weckwerth set a school record with 358 digs while contributing 24 ace serves and 103 service points. Wolff led the team with 65 blocks (including 20 solo blocks), was second in kills with 156 and compiled 29 ace serves, 131 service points and 75 digs.

Palm broke the school record with 433 set assists while tallying 34 ace serves, 151 service points, 40 kills and 201 digs. Tostenson had 66 kills, 40 service points, 89 digs and 24 assisted blocks. Smythe tallied 119 set assists, 18 ace serves and 86 service points.

In addition, the Panthers have to replace Megan Norby, who transferred to Nevis. As an eighth grader, Norby earned all-conference honors after leading the team with 240 kills. Norby also had 51 ace serves, 148 service points and 298 digs.

Those players led the Panthers to a 4-1 record for runner-up honors in the Mid-State Conference standings and to 15 wins, which just missed tying the school record of 16 set in 1980 (16-2) and 2004 (16-9).

Being counted on to lead the Panthers this season are the two returning letterwinners: senior Ashley Domino and junior Olivia Vaadeland.

Vaadeland earned all-conference honorable mention honors after leading the team with 30 solo blocks. Vaadeland started all 82 games and tallied 115 kills, 43 digs and 31 assisted blocks. The middle hitter put 82 of 94 serves in play with four aces for 47 points.

Domino, an outside hitter, played in 43 games and went 12 for 12 in serves with one ace and four points. Domino tallied 13 kills, 21 digs, 12 set assists, two solo blocks and 11 assisted blocks.

Looking to earn the other starting spots and play key roles off the bench are seniors Anna Grimes (middle hitter), Marisa Rittgers (right-side hitter), Sophie Shogren (libero) and Lizzy Vaudrin (setter); junior Katie Just (setter); sophomore Grace Bateman (setter/right-side hitter) and freshman Mady Vaudrin (outside hitter).

Lizzy Vaudrin played in three games last season, putting 6 of 7 serves in play with two aces while chipping in three set assists. Grimes played in one game and had two digs.

Lizzy Vaudrin, Just and Bateman will compete for the starting setter spot while Rittgers, Bateman and Mady Vaudrin will work as outside hitters. Grimes will play middle hitter and Shogren will be a defensive specialist.

"This team is court smart. They can execute tactical plays, which will score for us. This team is also a strong serving team," said Aukes. "Passing will be crucial for our early season success. Our setters will be expected to run a quicker offense, so passing will play a critical component. We look to increase our first ball kill percentage off serve receive so we can keep our team at the service line. Blocking and net play will also be an area we expect to see a lot of growth very quickly as the players settle into the tempo of the game."

Competing on junior varsity and C squad will be juniors Hannah Fischer (defensive specialist), Danielle Hill (middle hitter), Tina Niemela (outside hitter), Erika Jerger (defensive specialist) and Allie Bade (outside hitter); sophomores Ashley Thelen (setter), Brighton Robbins (outside hitter), Amber Booge (defensive specialist), Katelyn Hilmanowski (middle hitter), Tonya Melott (setter), Raven Rock (setter), Sarah Schultz (setter), Emily Grimes (outside hitter), Katie Olson (middle hitter), Alayna Young (middle hitter), Katelyn Zaske (defensive specialist), Sarah McBurney (defensive specialist) and Courtney Pilkey (right-side hitter); freshmen Justine Rittgers (right-side hitter), McKenna Brand (setter), Shania Johnson (setter), Bailee Jerger (middle hitter) and Morgan Dean (middle hitter); and eighth grader Megan Grimes (middle hitter).

"We will look to our JV to develop more depth at all positions," said Aukes, who will be assisted by Marion Goeden and Jackie Griffin. "It's clear to see that a lot of JV players have their eyes on helping this varsity team."

Last season the Panthers trailed Wadena-Deer Creek's 5-0 record in the conference standings and earned the No. 3 seed and a home playoff match for the North half of the Section 8AA tournament. The Panthers will be looking to contend in the conference once again and aim to host another section match this season.

"Although this team doesn't have a lot of varsity experience, they have played a lot together at the JV level, bringing a solid team unity into the season," said Aukes. "Senior leadership is always critical. We have a group of hard working, dedicated players that have a good work ethic and are great examples to the younger players. We're going to work hard to solidify our lineup and stay positive as we make early season adjustments. I expect this team to work very hard throughout the season. They have the skills to be a conference contender again."