Prep Volleyball Preview and Review: Tri-County Area prep teams making graduation losses into gains for 2022 season

Many a good prep volleyball player on Tri-County Area volleyball teams in 2021 have departed through graduations, along with some coaches as well.

Thus there's plenty of rebuilding going on and those teams took the two and half weeks from the start of the season until Sept. 8, the start of conference action in the Dairyland (the Cloverbelt begins on Tuesday, Sept. 13 when Osseo-Fairchild is at Fall Creek.

The teams' record heading into league play: Fall Creek 11-7, Osseo-Fairchild 5-3, Eleva-Strum 4-7, Augusta 1-3. Augusta is at Blair-Taylor Thursday, Sept. 8, one of the favorites in the DC while Eleva-Strum is at Lincoln. Fall Creek competes at an invite meet in Sparta this weekend before Tuesday's match against O-F.

Defending West Cloverbelt and WIAA regional tournament champion Fall Creek lost the bulk of experience and all-conference players from this team, including Gianna Vollrath
Sam Olson, Hannah Herrem, Anika Steinke and Catrina Cline. Returning letter winners include: Tori Marten, JaneyAnne Grossinger, Marissa Dunham, Emallie Sorensen, Sophie Johnson, Gracie Marten and Anna Dougherty

"The girls know they have some "big shoes to fill" from the strong graduating class in Fall Creek," head coach Matt Prissel said. "We have some new to the varsity level players that will need some experience to increase their comfortability on the court."

"Filling those shoes" started slowly for the Crickets and still a work in process. Despite their losses, FC went right into the big Rumble on the River mass-tournament in Onalaska back on Aug. 24 and 25. The Crickets started 2-3 on the first day losing to Mineral Point 25-17, 27-25; Black River Falls 25-23, 13-25, 15-12; Onalaska 25-18, 25-19 while beating Brookwood 25-23, 25-16 and Ladysmith 25-10, 25-15. Tori Marten had 29 kills, 25 digs, 8 aces, Emallie Sorensen had 21 kills, 14 aces; Lauren Dallas made 43 assists, 8 aces
Anna Dougherty 12 kills, 8 aces; Grace Herrem had 50 digs, Jenna Fitch made 38 assists and Gracie Marten 16 kills. FC did better the next day, beating Boscobel 26-24, 25-15; Cumberland 25-14, 25-19 and Iowa-Grant 25-15, 25-14. Fall Creek won the "Copper Bracket" in bracket play led by Sorensen's 16 kills, 9 aces, Tori Marten's 15 kills, Dallas' 24 assists, Jenna Fitch's 24 assists and Grace Herrem had 22 digs.

Fall Creek competed Marathon Invitational on Aug. 27. FC beat Spencer 25-17, 25-20; Rib Lake 24-26, 25-20, 15-9; and Stratfoird 26-24, 25-21 while losing to Marathon 26-24, 25-22
and Phillips def. Fall Creek 25-15, 21-25, 15-9. Tori Marten led Fall Creek statistically with 30 kills and six blocks Sorensen 23 kills, 25 digs; Grace Herrem had 44 digs and nine aces;
Jenna Fitch had 46 assists and eight aces; Lauren Dallas had 44 assists and nine aces while Gracie Marten had 26 kills.

Fall Creek then hosted their own quadrangular meet on Aug. 30 along with Eleva-Strum, Durand and Mondovi. Fall Creek def. Eleva-Strum 25-18, 25-18; Durand-Arkansaw 25-16, 25-18 and Mondovi 25-18, 25-21. Tori Marten had 19 kills, 20 digs; Sorensen had 13 kills and six aces; Gracie Marten had 10 kills; Lauren Dallas made 29 assists; Jenna Fitch had 24 assists and Grace Herrem notched 20 digs.

The Crickets then competed in a triangular at Altoona on Thursday, Sept. 1. Barron defeated. Fall Creek 25-9, 25-21 and Altoona defeated. Fall Creek 25-21, 25-22. Emallie Sorensen and Gracie Marten both finished with nine kills, Fitch had 15 assists while Marissa Dunham and Gracie Herrem both had 14 digs.

So all after all this, Prissel said his team's strengths and the challenges they face are clear.

"We have some great leadership on our team," Prissel said. "Those team leaders played important roles last season and experienced the success we have been fortunate to enjoy. They know and understand the culture and expectations of the program and are great models for the newer and younger players to help carry on the tradition. We have a group of girls who are hungry to get better and have a strong desire to improve their skills every time they hit the court. Our team chemistry is strong as we begin the 2022 season and those positive relationships among the team will help us play together in those big moments. To make this upcoming season a successful one we need to do the following: We have to play for each other and play together. With a younger and newer varsity-level team, we will focus on the positives and focus on the growth so that we can become a stronger team as the season goes forward and be trying to play our best volleyball of the season as we finish the conference schedule and enter the playoffs. Taking care of our side of the net is something we always talk about being one of our biggest keys to successful volleyball. Having fun together on and off the court will help create some positive memories and experiences and our hope is the success will follow."

Osseo-Fairchild has perhaps more more experienced players returning than Fall Creek but the Thunder also took significant graduation losses in players such as all-conference selections Brooke McCune and Mariah Steinke, Dezeray Eisberner and Rachel Moe from a squad which a had school record record at 27-4 in 2021. The Thunder also have a brand-new coaching staff as well, led by head coach Lexie Ward

Thus, there have plenty of early season adjustments that have needed to be worked out. O-F went 2-1 at the Loyal Quad back on Aug. 23 to start the season, went 2-1 in the Black River Falls Invite on Aug. 27 but took a bad 3-1 loss in a match at home to Dairyland Conference favorite Blair-Taylor on Sept. 1 which saw the Thunder go down 18-0 in the first game and lost 25-4. O-F lost the second game 25-22, won the third game 25-18 and lost a close fourth game 25-23.

But Ward feels the Thunder started to click with a not perfect but strong effort at Eleva-Strum on Tuesday, Sept. 6 to win 3-0. The first part of each game was closely contested but O-F was able to pull away in each game to win 25-19, 25-14 and 25-15 thanks to good serving from players like senior Hailey Mayer and left-handed server Kara Skoyen and strong play at the net from Mayer, fellow senior letter-winners Taylor Gunderson, Rhiannon Prudlick and Madisyn Loonstra, who was honorable mention All-Cloverbelt last fall.

"It was a very good effort on our part," Ward said. "We were aggressive, physical and played with energy, especially up front, and our serve-received improved a lot and needs to continue to do so.

Ward saw the team work-out and play volleyball over the summer so she has a good idea of what the individual players can do which works into the philosophy of how she wishes to coach.

"The players should what they're best at and work on and refine the best skills they have," Ward said. "You put that all together and you'll create team doing the best at their roles. And beyond that, we want a team that's poised, that encourages and strengthens each other and can dig themselves out of the tough situations that teams often times find themselves in on the court. If you can do that on the floor, amongst yourselves without needing a time out, grab the momentum back by supporting each other and playing to your best abilities, you're well on your way to winning and we saw some that tonight. But we have a long ways to go."

Ward praised the work of sophomore setter Skoyen and with continued development hopes she can get the ball to a deep and imposing frontline of hitters and blockers such as Prudlick, Mayer, Gunderson, Loonstra to go with other hitters like senior letter-winner Kaitlyn Skoug and senior Ayva Oliver and junior Addisyn Koxlien. The Thunder hope that will be on full display when they take on Fall Creek on Tuesday.

On the other side of the Central court is an Eleva-Strum squad which returns veteran Katie Skoug but is very young and inexperienced with just three seniors on the roster and having lost such all-conference performers and top players to graduation like Grace Clark, Madison Schultz and Paige Hammer.

Back for E-S this fall is one of their top kill leaders from last season in senior Jaden Bautch along with junior Annika Skoug and seniors Laney Windjue and Madisyn Gullicksrud.

"We have a lot of young players, new to varsity with big shoes to fill like Kaya (sophomore Kaya Franson) filling the setter role that Grace played for us for so long," Skoug said. "It's tricky to play at this level of varsity ball without that experience and that goes some other players as well in their first occasion playing varsity. That's why it's going to be so important, especially early on, to have our most experienced players like Jaden and Madilyn to be leaders and spark plugs for us in every match."

E-S started 1-2 in the Glenwood City Invite back on Aug. 23, went 1-2 again at Fall Creek on Aug. 30 but went 2-2 in the La Crosse Aquinas Invitational, beating Melrose-Mindoro, G-E-T while losing to Baraboo and tough three-set match with Prairie du Chien. This was a better start than perhaps expected (although the Cardinals have struggled this week) due to the size the team has up front with players like Windjue and freshman Aliza Kulig, who made several kills and blocks in the match vs. Osseo-Fairchild.

"Aliza is going to be tough in the middle as she improves throughout the season and together with Laney it gives us some great potential at the net," Skoug said.

The Cardinals have a lot of players on their roster this season and with that Skoug also has an eye on the future of the program hoping to keep most them out for the sport for four years and develop their skills throughout beyond just the fall season.

"We have 38 players on our roster 9-12, it's one of the biggest groups we've ever had," Skoug said. "We hope to get them to play in league over the summer and camps and build a program where the girls are working hard on their skills to get better, become stronger teams and create a better program that competes for conference titles and more."

E-S's fellow Dairyland Conference member Augusta falls into the camp where there's a number of experienced players back this fall including All-DC player senior Kennedy Korger along with fellow seniors Addison Engstrom, Emma Lee and Sam Winsce and juniors Camryn Kirkham and Olivia Meyer. But there's a new coach as former Fall Creek all-star player Emily Madden now has the reigns.

The Beavers lost to Cadott and Neillsville in a triangular meet in Cadott on Aug. 23 and fell to Durand-Arkansaw 3-1 in a well-contested match 25-21, 24-26, 25-16, 25-22 back on Aug. 25 at home. Good serving from Engstrom along with kills from Korger, Winsce and Lee kept the Beavers competitive, snagging a Game 2 win by outscoring the Panthers 4-1 and fighting back from early deficits in Games 1 and 4

AHS picked up their first win with a 3-0 sweep of Greenwood on Aug. 30. Madden said the team has improved considerably since their first practice.

"They've had a to learn a new defense and new plays on offense and plenty else to build a string team culture and chemistry," Madden said. "And so far that improvements been there from better passing, communication, foot movement, hitting and talk time."

Augusta doesn't have a lot of height but they do have plenty of good, energetic athletes which Madden believes will play into an eventual team strength as the season goes on.

"I saw a lot of scrappy play, aggressive play and fight against Durand that if we can keep consistently will be a big help to us," Madden said. "We have good servers and they'll be important to help us score points off the serve-receive combined with improvement in defense and offense sets throughout the season. My hope is the good team attitude and positive culture stays consistent too. We've thrown a lot at them since the start of practice and they've handled it well and with a smile and that's what we want to keep."

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