New-look Cats possess same big plans

Rachel Mummey/The Herald
Tori Sermersheim (8) and Elisabeth Ahlbrand (2) both return for Jasper’s volleyball team, which has reached the semistate final each of the last two seasons. The Wildcats will open their season Thursday at Princeton, while Forest Park plays its first match tonight, Southridge and Northeast Dubois both open Tuesday and Heritage Hills waits until Saturday’s Evansville Memorial Invitational to get started.

By JOE JASINSKI
Herald Sports Writer

It would have been easy for Liz Milligan to arrive as a first-year head coach exuding an attitude of compromise.

After earning its second straight regional title, the Jasper volleyball team lost seven seniors to graduation, including several critical cogs that led the Wildcats to their first 30-win season since 2001.

Yet Milligan, a self-proclaimed perfectionist, isn’t buying into the idea of a rebuild. Certainly she’s not naive to gaps that must be filled, but accepting a setback? Not this year, Milligan said.

“You always want to win a sectional, and with the tradition of Jasper, that’s always there,” Milligan said. “It’s great to win a sectional, it’s great to win a regional, but I’d like to start beating people that have beaten us in the past. … I’d like to bring home a semistate or a state title.”

The words are brash, but the Wildcats’ preseason effort has backed up the claims. Between two-hour track workouts and 6 a.m. practices that included military drills, the Wildcats have assured work ethic won’t be a question entering the season.

The Wildcats return senior Tori Sermersheim, the left-side hitter who pummeled 13 kills in Jasper’s regional title victory over Mount Vernon. Junior Elisabeth Ahlbrand, who emerged in the postseason last year, will add punch to the wing as well.

Juniors Sophie Weidenbenner and Emma Stout and sophomore Reagan Hochmeister will shuffle at the middle hitter position while also helping fill the right outside hitter role.

While setting remains a slight question, sophomore Teyah Leinenbach will fill the role to start the season. Junior Rachel Sternberg will fill either a setter or hitter spot, as the Wildcats experiment with 5-1 and 4-2 formations.

Though the libero position remains up for grabs, seniors Abby Pierce and Mariah Moeller will help fortify the back line with help from sophomore Michala Flamion.

Milligan also expects senior Katie Krempp to provide quality minutes on the front line once she recovers from an ankle injury, and junior right-side hitter Alex Krapf, who suffered a concussion in July, could return soon.

The unit boasts versatility, meaning no lineup is completely set in stone. What Milligan hopes doesn’t change is the end goal.

“Trying to get to that state (finals) would be an awesome goal for us,” Milligan said. “It’s going to be difficult, but I think it’s attainable.”

SOUTHRIDGE
It’s come as a bit of a surprise, but Sarah Rogers still hasn’t been teased much for her accent.

The first-year Raider coach is an Alabama native who played two years of college ball at Northwest Shoals (Ala.) Community College and another two at Cumberland University in Lebanon, Tenn., where she went on to coach at the middle school, high school and collegiate level (as an assistant) after graduating.

Langebrake

So far, her players haven’t razzed her much for her southern twang. Perhaps off-the-cuff jokes will come with on-court success, which Rogers feels is attainable despite losing six players to graduation.

“We’re not going to be very tall, but breaking it down and concentrating on the fundamentals, I think we’ll be able to compete,” Rogers said.

The Raider roster is bullish in the middle grades, with eight juniors and nine sophomores bookended by a trio of seniors and three freshmen.

Haley Langebrake, a returning starter and the Raiders’ only senior starter for now, will inhabit an outside hitter position, as will junior Taylor Uppencamp. Filling the middle role on the front line will be a combination of junior Nikki Fischer and sophomore Sydney Altmeyer.

Junior Maddie Lubbehusen will serve as the libero and classmate Maddie Neu should settle in on the back line’s right side. Sophomore Grace Kappner will assume the setter role for Southridge, which does return six players who notched playing time in at least 20 matches last year.

Bolstering the bench will be senior Gabby Ingram and junior Elli Schank, both of whom Rogers anticipates aiding the back line. Sophomore Taylor Voegerl should strengthen the outside hitter crop.

For a squad that finished 12-18 last season, Rogers feels the team’s goals this time around are within reach: secure a winning record and a postseason match victory. Given the work ethic she’s seen, it appears just a matter of execution, she said.

“Being young and really only having one senior that starts, I think having a record above .500, we can do it,” Rogers said. “They’re very capable of doing that.”

FOREST PARK
Ranger coach Jamie Giesler can tell a lot from her team’s volume level.

As they trudged through preseason conditioning, the Rangers oftentimes would sing as they went.

“We’ve got a bunch of crazy kids,” Giesler joked.

But each day, the boisterous bunch fell hush when looking toward the gym’s wall.

Schaefer

“We talk about getting ourselves back up on the wall,” Giesler said, referencing the banners inside Buechler Arena. “Every time we’re together, I point to the banner and I say, ”˜It’s time. We’ve got to get on that wall.’ And it’s achievable to them. It’s up to them. They keep the attitudes they have and they can get there. It’s the incentive of, ”˜This is where we need to be.’”

The Rangers, who finished 11-19 last season, will be anchored by three seniors. Devin Schaefer will deliver muscle as an outside hitter. Chloe Dilger will assume a more all-encompassing role on the back and front lines. And after missing last season because of an injury, Adria Giesler will resume setting duties.

Seven juniors help augment the roster, including outside hitter Lydia Lange. Classmate Jordan Voges also should see minutes at outside hitter, as will newcomer Kacy Gogel, also a junior.

Junior Anna Hagedorn, traditionally a setter, may transition to a more defensive role, while classmate Sophia Bolte can set as well. Juniors Heather Buechler and Taylor Prechtel should help secure the back line.

What Giesler’s noticed most has been an atmosphere of cohesion. Add to that a sense of urgency, and an addition to the Ranger wall could happen soon, she said.

“They’ve wanted to stay later and come in earlier (to practice). Just great all-around attitudes,” she said. “The atmosphere has been really great and that makes it easier for the kids to work. They want to get better and they want to get better fast.”

NORTHEAST DUBOIS
It didn’t take long for Jeep coach Stephanie Schepers to take a back seat this year.

As she instructed her team the first day of practice what drills they’d run, she noticed some long faces.

“We thought we were going to plan practice,” she remembered hearing her players say.

The message was clear.

“They want to take ownership of their team,” Schepers said.

Brinkman

The Jeeps lost only three seniors from last year’s sectional champion squad, but the team dynamic has undoubtedly shifted. Whereas last year’s offense cycled through graduated middle hitter Nicole Dodd, this year’s revolves around a more homogenous pool void of a standout player but far from lacking talentwise.

“I think the benefit this year is that we don’t have that one, solid, go-to person,” Schepers said. “Everyone needs to step up and they have. I’m always confident, but this year is different. Everyone knows their roles.”

Schepers boasts a modest seven players on varsity, which concluded last season with a 23-10 mark and sectional crown.

Senior Talia Terwiske slots into the setter position, while classmate Emily Lueken will work primarily from the back line. After having surgery to repair her rotator cuff and torn bicep, senior Haley Brinkman will hold down the middle hitter position.

The remaining four roster members are all juniors. Kendra Jacob, “kind of a powerhouse,” said Schepers when describing Jacob’s forceful swats, returns as an outside hitter. Katelyn Helming, whom Schepers lauded for her offseason work ethic, will assist as a middle hitter. Jenna Stemle will take over the libero position left after her sister Michaela graduated. Chloe Johnson will service as an outside hitter this year.

Schepers contends that while the roster isn’t large in terms of quantity, the group’s maturity level is what sets them apart. And because of that, contending with teams with more size or numbers won’t have the Jeeps in a panic.

“I think the confidence (against) those bigger schools, their confidence is built,” Schepers said. “It’s a matter of putting your heart on the floor, and I think they have that this year. … The camaraderie is above what it’s been in the past.”

HERITAGE HILLS
It wasn’t a complete overhaul, but Patriot coach Annie Gunselman knows she isn’t looking at the same team this year as last.

In total, Heritage Hills lost four of its six starters from last year’s team, which assembled a 23-8 record before losing to Jasper in a five-set, sectional championship thriller. For the moment, patience takes precedence.

“Right now, we’re still finding our way,” Gunselman said. “We have a couple very good players back, but they’re all just juniors. We’re still missing that leadership and experience.”

Ayer

The upperclassman hardest to miss will be Madi Fella, whom Gunselman moved from middle to outside hitter to reward the 6-foot-2 junior with more swings. Classmate CJ Nance will take on the middle hitter role, while fellow junior April Kippenbrock, who came on strong last season when Mallory Hirt went down with an injury, will step into the other outside hitter slot. Junior Miriah Leibering returns as the team’s setter.

McKensie Ayer, the team’s lone senior, could find a starting spot on the back line alongside juniors Ashley Mosby and Michaella Burger.

Juniors Shelby Winner and Amanda Dellamuth will both contend for playing time, while sophomore Claire Dilger has the potential to earn a starting role at one of the hitter positions.

Gunselman said she remains confident in the group’s offensive potential, but locating consistency and improving ball control remain major issues. Nevertheless, the Patriots have time.

“What I want to see is steady improvement throughout the year because for me, winning the tournament is always what you shoot for,” Gunselman said. “The regular season will be a learning experience and the hope is that come tournament time, we’ll be able to see our true potential.”

Contact Joe Jasinski at jjasinski@dcherald.com.




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