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Panthers count on depth to produce more victories

Seniors (front from left) Tonya Melott, Alyana Young, Katie Olson, Katelyn Hilmanowski, Katlyn Zaske; (middle) Grace Bateman, Brighton Robbins; (top) Ashley Thelen are looking to lead the Park Rapids volleyball team to a successful season.

Molly Aukes is counting on depth and experience to lead the Park Rapids volleyball team to more victories this fall.

The Panthers return six regulars from a team that went 1-4 in Mid-State Conference match-es and 6-17 overall last season.

Filling the spots vacated by the graduation of Olivia Vaadeland, Erika Jerger and Katie Just is going to be the key to a successful season. Vaadeland was the Panthers' Most Valuable Player after receiving 34 percent of the serves and getting 29 percent of the team's attacks while leading the team with 152 kills, 227 digs, 40 solo blocks, 52 assisted blocks, 24 ace serves, 111 service points and 423 serve receives. Jerger was second on the team by receiving 248 serves and tallying 153 digs while contributing 89 service points. Just had 43 service points and 62 digs while receiving 78 serves.

Returning to lead the Panthers are the six players who played in at least 60 of the 73 sets last season: senior setter Grace Bateman, senior outside hitter Katelyn Hilmanowski, junior outside hitter Justine Rittgers, junior middle hitter Mady Vaudrin, junior setter Shania Johnson and sophomore middle hitter Megan Grimes.

Bateman played in all 73 sets and went 191 for 205 in serves with 16 aces and 106 points while leading the team with 835 sets and 218 set assists. Bateman also had 51 kills in 255 attacks and 153 digs.

Hilmanowski had 55 kills in 214 attacks and put 140 of 156 serves in play with 16 aces and 70 points. Hilmanowski also had 89 digs and went 80 for 85 in serve receive in 60 sets.

Rittgers played in 71 sets and went 140 for 161 in serves with 18 aces and 76 points. Rittgers also had 50 kills in 273 attacks, received 116 of 138 serves and had 153 digs.

In 70 sets, Vaudrin had 58 kills in 246 attacks and went 82 for 100 in serve receive. Vaudrin put 39 of 44 serves in play with two aces and 23 points. Vaudrin, who also had 54 digs, will move from outside to middle hitter.

Johnson was second on the team with 617 sets and 152 set assists and shared the team lead in service points with 111 after putting 208 of 220 serves in play with nine aces. Johnson also had 99 digs in 68 sets.

Grimes played in 68 sets and went 72 for 89 in serves with 13 aces and 37 points, had 95 kills in 314 attacks, and tallied 77 digs and 15 solo blocks.

Also returning with some varsity experience are senior setter Ashley Thelen, senior defensive specialist Tonya Melott and junior hitter Morgan Dean. Thelen played in eight sets and had 12 set assists and nine digs. Melott played in three sets. Dean played in 27 sets and had eight kills in 53 attacks and eight digs.

Competing for varsity spots will be seniors Brighton Robbins (outside hitter), Katie Olson (right-side hitter), Alayna Young (outside hitter) and Katlyn Zaske (defensive specialist); junior Bailee Jerger (middle hitter); and sophomore Bria Wolff (middle hitter).

Starting the season on junior varsity will be sophomores Vanessa Kangas, Hannah Gorder and Dezzy Ceminski; and freshmen Paige Hill, Sydney Bynum, Madi Wagner and Gabbie Johnson.

The C squad features sophomores Michelle Witkin and Caryssa Chose; and freshmen Tonya Yliniemi, Ava Mart, Kylie Higgins, Ana Villoria, Bailee Hofford, Caitlin Brumbaugh, Sarah Harshman, Talya Smith, Chloe Hauth, Dana McDonald, Kasarra Adams and Bethany Feldt.

"We will be putting six players on the floor with starting varsity experience. With moving Mady to middle, we have some new communication pieces to work out, but we are experienced with two returning setters who know our offense. Because of this, we'll start the season ahead of where we were last year," said Aukes, who will be assisted by Marion Goeden and Jackie Griffin. "I think we are going to get more blocks this season, but the area of concern is serve receive and floor defense. We are looking for a vocal leader who will help run the floor, which will turn into exciting offensive plays. It all starts with a great pass."

Last year, the Panthers received the No. 6 seed for the Section 8AA tournament and was eliminated by No. 3 Roseau in the first round. Wadena-Deer Creek won the conference title with a 5-0 record and defeated Thief River Falls to qualify for the state Class AA tournament for the fourth year in a row. The Wolverines are again favored to repeat a conference and section champs, but Aukes is counting on the Panthers to move up in both the conference and section ranks.

"I expect us to compete more. This group of girls wants to put wins up and they understand that it all starts with the fundamentals. We have a deep bench with girls who understand their role on our team but are not so complacent that they won't compete for a starting spot. I see a lot of competing and challenging each other at positions as we look to put our strongest team on the floor every night. This team has been through the rocky seasons and are all but determined to be a better team. Our program is growing at all levels and that is exciting. A lot of the girls put a significant amount of time into their off-season combining the weight room with court time. They will need to continue to work hard and improve for us to meet our goals," said Aukes. "I think we will surprise a few teams this year. Coming off a season with six wins, we are definitely looking to get to .500. We have a hard-working and athletic team who wants to be contenders. I think we can play with and beat anyone in our conference. Our section has some tough teams returning. The level of play in our section is great and the girls are really looking for the opportunity to play them and see where we match up. They are ready for the challenge. The future is bright for Park Rapids volleyball."