Having to replace five veteran starters was going to be a challenge for the Park Rapids volleyball team.
COVID-19 didn’t help matters.
Because of the coronavirus, the volleyball season was delayed. The Minnesota State High School League, which originally moved the volleyball season to the spring, allowed teams to play this fall. However, each team was limited to 14 matches and no invitational tournaments.
The virus compacted the season even more when Park Rapids had to cancel the final four matches of the season. The Panthers were denied another match when the MSHSL elected to cancel all section and state tournament play.
That limited Park Rapids to only 10 matches. The Panthers went 0-10 in those matches, including a 0-7 record in Mid-State Conference play.
“I believe it was very important to have had a season this fall, especially for the seniors. I think had the MSHSL gone with the original decision of doing four seasons and sticking volleyball between winter and spring sports would have not gone as well for a variety of reasons,” said Park Rapids head coach Christine Sauer. “Although there were many moving pieces to prepare for the season and the pieces continued to move throughout the season, I believe it was the best decision for the players, coaches and the program as a whole to have a modified fall season.”
The Panthers played well in both conference matches against Crosby-Ironton, losing 25-22, 20-25, 25-19, 22-25, 15-13 and 25-17, 22-25, 25-19, 20-25, 16-14. Aside from those two marathon matches, the Panthers lost their other eight duals in three sets.
Park Rapids opened the season with losses to Aitkin (25-15, 25-10, 25-15) and East Grand Forks (25-19, 25-17, 25-22). Following the first loss to C-I, the Panthers were defeated by Staples-Motley (25-11, 25-21, 25-22) and Roseau (25-17, 25-14, 25-16). Park Rapids closed out the season with losses to Thief River Falls (25-11, 25-16, 25-14), Detroit Lakes (25-15, 25-19, 25-14), Pequot Lakes (25-17, 25-12, 25-6) and Aitkin (25-17, 25-13, 25-23). The Panthers had to cancel conference matches against Staples-Motley, Detroit Lakes and Pequot Lakes.
“The scoreboard often did not line up in our favor this year and there were matches that sometimes weren't close, but I feel strongly when I say the experience that my entire JV team and upcoming varsity members got on the court throughout our constant lineup changes was immeasurable,” said Sauer. “I can't think of any other scenario where numerous nonstarters in a season would get court experience and preparation. That is something special.”
Earning letters for the Panthers this season were seniors Katie Burlingame, Abby Kirlin, Sydney Lange and Kendra Scholz; juniors Kate Aukes, Marriyam Ejaz, Quinn Hunter and Keely Peterson; sophomores Riley Pike and Chloe Tretbar; and freshman Abby Felts. Only Burlingame and Scholz saw extended varsity time last season.
Also seeing some varsity time for the first time this fall were juniors Tarynn Arola, Rachel Robbins, Peyten Sherk and Simone Wolff; sophomore Alison Scholz; and freshman Macey Lund.
Of that group, only Hunter and Peterson played in all 10 matches. Lange, Kirlin and Pike played in eight matches while Aukes played in seven matches. Burlingame and Ejaz started six matches each while Scholz, Tretbar and Felts played in four matches each.
Burlingame received all-conference honors after serving eight aces and 35 points, pounding down 47 kills and tallying 64 digs as an outside hitter. Lange contributed 14 kills, nine digs and nine assisted blocks as a middle hitter. Kirlin served seven aces and 30 points and had 45 digs as a defensive specialist. Scholz chipped in 15 service points, 26 kills and 17 digs as an outside hitter.
Aukes had 18 service points, 38 kills and 56 digs as an outside hitter. Ejaz tallied 66 set assists with 16 digs, eight service points and eight kills as a setter. Hunter had 26 kills, 11 digs and seven assisted blocks as a middle hitter. Peterson led the team with 97 digs and 51 service points while tallying eight ace serves.
Pike led the Panthers with 84 set assists and had 25 service points with eight aces, 40 kills, 41 digs and eight blocks as a setter. Tretbar chipped in six kills, nine digs and five service points as a right-side hitter. Felts had seven kills, six service points and 14 digs as an outside hitter.
Burlingame was named the Panthers’ MVP, Kirlin earned all-state academic honors and received the Team Spirit Award, and Peterson received the team’s Panther Pride Award. Burlingame and Scholz served as team captains.
Because of COVID, Sauer had her best lineup on the court for only two matches. While that made it tough to develop any consistency and chemistry, it did provide several players with varsity experience that they wouldn’t have normally received.
“There were many challenges the varsity encountered this year, especially in trying to create a consistent lineup for a starting rotation. Due to COVID there were only two games this season that I had the same lineup,” said Sauer. “I hope that every girl that stepped on the varsity court this season holds on to their experiences and brings them to next season. And for the girls that are juniors and seniors next year, I hope that their opportunity for leadership this year carries over to next year.”
While it wasn’t the season Sauer expected, the Park Rapids head coach couldn’t have been happier with the way her team handled all the distractions.
“I am proud of the whole program and how they handled the season. This was a season unlike any other. These girls will remember this season the rest of their lives. Of course it wasn't easy and there were many trying moments. As a program, we tried to remember that all of the adversity would make them stronger as individuals and we focused on persevering through the season,” said Sauer. “Considering how many things these girls tried to manage from a short notice of a volleyball season starting, the learning models for school changing throughout the season, quarantines and positive COVID cases, the mental stress these girls endured wasn't easy. I'm proud of them for pushing through and making a season of improving as individuals, as a team and as a program.”
Even though the Panthers will have key spots to fill with the graduation of the four seniors, Sauer is looking forward to seeing what the returning players learned from this unique season and how motivated they’ll be in the offseason to take over leadership roles next fall.
“Every year programs see seniors go and it's never easy. It's a wonderful experience to start in a program young and finish it through as a senior and each senior leaves their own unique imprint on the program. This year's seniors were no exception. It is going to be hard to replace them,” said Sauer. “I think a huge takeaway for the underclassmen is you always need to be prepared for your shot because you don't know when it’s going to happen. Practice every practice like it’s your last one and be the best teammate you can be. I really hope that the girls in the program really commit to strength and conditioning. With such a quick start to the season we never really got a full pre-season training in and it showed. Our girls can get stronger and faster, and that is something I hope they commit to doing on their own. In addition, I hope they jump at every opportunity provided to them to improve their athletic ability and volleyball skills because as they learned they don't know when the next opportunity will start or end.”