Panthers focused on taking next step
Stephanie Hanson credited mental fortitude as the key ingredient to leading the Park Rapids volleyball team to the Section 8AA championship match last season.
The Park Rapids head coach is counting on that same mental toughness to lead the Panthers to another record-breaking season and a chance to qualify for the state tournament for the first time in school history.
"We learned how to win mentally and physically as a team and got to the section championship match last season," said Hanson, who enters this season with a 243-84 career record in 12 seasons as the head coach at Nevis and Park Rapids. "I believe this experience will help carry us to that section championship match again."
Despite graduating three key players, Hanson has plenty of reasons to be optimistic this fall.
The Panthers have to replace middle hitter Jaiden McCollum, setter Kennedy Carlson and libero Kortne Byer. McCollum and Carlson were Mid-State Conference players while Byer received all-conference honorable mention honors. McCollum graduated as the school's all-time leader with 1,083 kills while Carlson graduated as the school's all-time leader in set assists in a season (920) and in a career (3,115).
On the positive side, the Panthers return four starters from last year's team that repeated as conference champs with a 4-0 record and set a school record for wins in a season by going 24-3. Park Rapids received the No. 1 seed in the South for the section tournament and was denied a trip to state with a loss to Roseau, the No. 1 seed in the North, in the title match.
Being counted on to lead the Panthers back to the section championship match are senior Kaisa Coborn and juniors Kamree Carlson, Rilee Michaelson and Katelyn Weaver. Coborn, Kamree Carlson and Michaelson earned all-conference honors while Weaver was an all-conference honorable mention player. Kamree Carlson and Michaelson played in all 81 sets while Coborn and Weaver played in 70 sets.
Coborn set school records for career digs (984) and career ace serves (166) last season as an outside hitter. Coborn put 275 of 304 serves in play with 41 aces and 171 points while contributing 255 digs, 150 kills, 17 blocks and 11 set assists.
Kamree Carlson broke the school record for digs in a season with 359 while finishing second on the team with 294 kills. The outside hitter put 180 of 208 serves in play with 21 aces and 103 points while adding 25 blocks.
Michaelson, a middle hitter, was third with 239 kills, 168 service points and 53 blocks. Michaelson put 277 of 314 serves in play with 37 aces while adding 114 digs.
Weaver, who will take over the starting setter position after being a right-side hitter last year, led the Panthers with 188 service points by going 304 for 328 in serves with 41 aces. Weaver also chipped in 202 digs, 46 kills, 30 set assists and 17 blocks.
Also being counted on to play key roles are juniors Kayleah Breitweser, Katie Burlingame and Kora Just. Breitweser played 34 sets as a middle hitter and tallied 31 blocks, 16 digs and 11 kills while Burlingame played two sets as a hitter. Just will take over the libero role. Rounding out the varsity roster are juniors Madison Benham (outside hitter), Kayla Brock (middle hitter) and Noel Skadberg (right-side hitter), and sophomore Kendra Scholz (middle hitter).
Starting the season on junior varsity will be junior Star Norcross; sophomore Brenna Behrens; freshmen Kate Aukes and Keely Peterson; and eighth grader Riley Pike. The C squad will feature junior Bridget Basswood; sophomore Tyla Norcross; and freshmen Allyson Holmer, Tatiyana Smith, Gracie Stuemke, Tegan Lippert, Cara Sunram, Peyten Sherk, Quinn Hunter, Marriyan Ejaz, Madison Forseman, Simone Wolff, Rachel Robbins, Tarynn Arola and Anna Hensel.
"With the success we had last year, I expect the girls to grow from that experience. I'm hoping that will help us mentally and physically this year," said Hanson. "The girls put in the work in the offseason. We used the offseason to develop and fill the positions we lost. The girls have stepped up. They want to have success and do better than last year."
The Panthers enter the season rated No. 8 in the first state Class AA poll and favored to win the Section 8AA title. Roseau (25-11 last season), Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton (18-12), Perham (16-11) and Pequot Lakes (21-9) round out the pre-season top 5. Roseau and D-G-F graduated seven seniors while Perham and Pequot Lakes graduated five seniors. The next contenders are Hawley (14-14), Crosby-Ironton (16-11), Detroit Lakes (12-14), Fergus Falls (14-16) and Thief River Falls (11-17). Rounding out the section are Bagley (5-19), Crookston (6-16-1), East Grand Forks (6-20), Staples-Motley (5-22) and Warroad (8-19).
"We had a good year last year, but we're hoping to do better. I expect these girls will have the drive to finish better than last year. I really think that is attainable for this group," said Hanson, who will be assisted by Molly Aukes, Molly Gareis and Todd Becker. "There are so many good teams in our section, but we're right there. We need to develop the mental toughness and confidence it takes at the end of the season when it counts. These girls know what it takes. It's not going to be easy, but if they discipline themselves and don't hold back, they can make it happen."