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Determined Panthers eye more victories this season

Leading the Park Rapids volleyball team this season are seniors (from left) Olivia Vaadeland, Katie Just, Erika Jerger and Allie Bade.

Having 11 players compete on varsity for the first time resulted in an 8-23 record for the Park Rapids volleyball team last season.

Having five of those players returning with plenty of varsity experience should lead to more victories this season.

Seniors Olivia Vaadeland and Katie Just, junior Grace Bateman, and sophomores Justine Rittgers and Mady Vaudrin return after playing in at least 27 matches last season. Sophomore Shania Johnson played in 13 varsity matches, senior Erika Jerger saw action in six varsity matches and junior Ashley Thelen played in one varsity match a year ago.

Vaadeland was a Mid-State Conference middle hitter after leading the Panthers with 180 kills, 253 digs and 61 solo blocks in 30 matches. Vaadeland put 245 of 266 serves in play with 19 aces and 113 points.

Just played in 29 matches last season, tallying 82 set assists and 111 digs. Just put 186 of 199 serves in play with 22 aces and 87 points a year ago. Just will serve as a defensive specialist this season.

Bateman will return at setter after compiling 48 set assists and 64 digs last season. In 31 matches, Bateman put 47 of 54 serves in play for 23 points and had 46 kills.

Rittgers returns at outside hitter after tallying 21 kills and 46 digs in 27 matches a year ago. Rittgers went 66 for 70 in serves with nine aces and 41 points.

Vaudrin also played in 27 matches last season and had 34 kills and 46 digs. Vaudrin, who put 79 of 91 serves in play with 11 aces and 52 points, will return at right-side hitter.

Johnson will take over the starting setter role after tallying 21 set assists last season.

Jerger will serve as a defensive specialist this year while Thelen will be the back-up setter.

Rounding out this year's varsity roster are senior Allie Bade (middle hitter) and junior Katelyn Hilmanowski (outside hitter). Freshman middle hitter Megan Grimes and sophomore right-side hitter Morgan Dean will also see varsity time.

The Panthers will have to fill the spots vacated by the graduation of Ashley Domino, Anna Grimes, Marisa Rittgers and Lizzy Vaudrin.

Domino was second on the team with 81 kills and was third with 125 digs en route to earning all-conference honors. Grimes led the team with 33 service aces and was second with 181 digs and third with 75 kills. Rittgers led the team with 135 service points, was fourth with 123 digs and had 48 kills. Vaudrin led the team with 189 set assists and was second with 29 service aces and 126 service points.

Starting the season on junior varsity and C squad teams will be juniors Brighton Robbins (outside hitter), Tonya Melott (defensive specialist), Kaitlin Olson (right-side hitter) and Alayna Young (outside hitter); sophomore Nakkita Buckanaga (setter); and freshmen Hannah Gorder (setter), Bria Wolff (middle hitter), Bradlyn Daily (outside hitter), Michelle Witkin (setter), Danielle Carnell (defensive specialist), Teresa Starmer (outside hitter/defensive specialist), Deserae Ceminski (middle hitter) and Caryssa Chosa (middle hitter).

"Our strengths are many girls have played together and they are all driven to take this program another step forward. They are determined, focused and skilled," said head coach Molly Aukes, who will be assisted by Jackie Griffin and Marion Goeden. "We have a number of offensive threats that will make for some great match-ups this season. We are strong servers and will look to be more consistent on serve receive. The pass is critical to having a solid match. We are also looking for more blocking this season. Our setters will be asked to run a quicker tempo offense, which will add more versatility to our game."

Last year, the Panthers went 2-3 in conference matches while Wadena-Deer Creek went 5-0 to win the conference title. W-DC defeated Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton to win the Section 8AA title and capped a 33-0 season by winning the state Class AA championship. Park Rapids was the No. 8 seed in the north half for the section playoffs and was eliminated by No. 1 D-G-F in the first round.

Aukes is counting on the Panthers to have an improved season this year.

"Our team wants to get more wins this year. The girls are looking to be better than .500 as a result of their hard work. The keys for this team will be to stay focused and determined, but have fun playing the game," said Aukes. "This team is very exciting to watch. If they enjoy the game and stay focused on their goals, they will be successful. I think we could surprise a few teams this year."