Over the past four seasons, the Park Rapids volleyball team compiled one of the best records in Section 8AA.
The Panthers posted a 5-0 record in Mid-State Conference play and a 23-8 overall record last season. That marked Park Rapids’ fourth straight undefeated season in conference play and extended the Panthers’ winning streak in conference matches to 19. In that span, the Panthers compiled a 90-25 record with marks of 24-8 in 2018, 24-3 in 2017 and 19-6 in 2016.
Kamree Carlson and Rilee Michaelson were starters all four seasons while Katelyn Weaver, Kayleah Breitweser and Kora Just also played key roles in that success. Michaelson, Carlson, Weaver, Just and Breitweser earned all-conference honors last season.
Michaelson earned Class AA honorable mention honors and was the Mid-State Conference’s MVP. The middle hitter led the team with 509 kills to set a single-season school record and 59 blocks while tallying 285 digs and putting 248 of 296 serves in play with 31 aces and 125 points.
Carlson set school records with 1,407 career kills and 1,624 career digs after leading the team with 426 digs and finishing second with 335 kills last season. Carlson put 353 of 388 serves in play with 27 aces and 211 points while adding 24 blocks as an outside hitter.
Weaver was the starting setter, tallying 963 set assists to finish second in school history with 1,992 career set assists. Weaver put 359 of 385 serves in play with a team-high 52 aces and 203 points while contributing 189 digs and 32 blocks.
Just was the starting libero who went 275 for 293 in serves with 28 aces and 146 points and was second on the team with 383 digs and 27 set assists.
Breitweser had 55 blocks, 92 kills and 40 digs as a middle hitter last season.
Without that group, it’s going to be an entirely different look for the Panthers. Head coach Christine Sauer faces the challenge of replacing that talent and leadership and finding cohesion on the court with four new starters. Those players won’t be able to feed off the energy of the home crowd as no fans will be allowed in the gym because of COVID concerns.
Being counted on to lead the Panthers this season are seniors Katie Burlingame and Kendra Scholz. Scholz returns as a middle blocker after starting the last two seasons while Burlingame returns as an outside hitter after starting last fall.
Scholz received all-conference honorable mention honors after finishing second with 58 blocks and 41 serves aces while chipping in 134 kills and 76 digs. Scholz went 288 of 350 in serves with 171 points.
Burlingame finished third in service points with 196 after putting 305 of 358 serves in play with 34 aces. Burlingame also had 48 kills, 273 digs and 15 blocks.
Four other players saw limited varsity time last season. Senior Abby Kirlin played 11 sets as a reserve defensive specialist, junior Keely Peterson played seven sets as a defensive specialist/libero, junior Kate Aukes played two sets as a middle hitter and sophomore Riley Pike played 17 sets as a setter. Pike went 25 for 29 in serves with two aces and 12 points while contributing 12 kills.
Rounding out the varsity roster are senior middle hitter Sydney Lange (a transfer student from California), junior setter Marriyam Ejaz, junior middle hitter Quinn Hunter and junior middle hitter Rachel Robbins.
“The program has had just a large staple group of upperclassmen that have now left us. They left a big imprint on our program, but now it is such an exciting time seeing the next phase of Park Rapids volleyball come through. I believe even though we have lost some great athletes, we have some great kids coming up,” said Sauer, who will be assisted by Molly Aukes, Ellie Riihilouma and Katelyn Seehafer. “It has been an exciting time in the gym these last few days. This year is unlike any other. My expectations for my team this year is to persevere at all costs. I think any person that has followed MSHSL sports since March knows that it hasn't been easy for many of our athletes. You think of how much our athletes have had to deal with from seasons canceled, to limited gym space, to modified practices, to seasons being reinstated, to following all of the safety guidelines, to now possibly being canceled again. That is emotionally draining. My expectations of my athletes is to keep their chins up and live in the moment and enjoy the feeling of being a part of something bigger than themselves. I want them to learn to be comfortable with change, grow stronger as a team and stay the course.”
Starting the season on the junior varsity will be juniors Peyten Sherk (outside hitter), Taryn Arola (libero) and Simone Wolff (middle hitter); sophomores Allison Scholz (outside hitter), Chloe Tretbar (setter) and Erica Sellin (setter); and freshmen Abby Felts (middle hitter) and Macey Lund (outside hitter).
The B squad will feature juniors Tatiana Smith and Ally Holmer; sophomores Tera Edwards, Tori Hanson and Kassidy Ennen; and freshmen Nora Huber, Lauryn Eischens, Kasen Girtz, Kilea Persons and Olivia Lange. Competing on C squad will be sophomores Christina Engst, Haley Kerr, Linda Diaz and McKenzie Hagen; and freshmen Alexis Usher, Cecelia Chase, Avery Stuemke, Maddi Evink, Tayshia Nauber, Kaleigh River, Ariana Keezer, Josie Nelmark and Cortney Henderson.
The Panthers will be looking to improve their skills and focus on just enjoying their time on the court.
“We are going to work on our game, and this is important, but we are going to take a bigger focus on our mental game. I believe that the teams that will come out on top this season are not going to be the teams that are the best physically fit, or the teams that run the fastest offense, or the best defense. I think the teams that will be the best are going to be the teams that can stay emotionally tough and have the ‘togetherness’ that a team is supposed to have,” said Sauer. “It will take some time for our new varsity team to get comfortable with one another and the girls in new roles adjusting to the quickness of a varsity match, but I'm confident that the 2020 team will put up a good fight against our competitive teams on our schedule. Our key to having a successful year is keeping our chin up and being mentally tough.”