Loaded with experience and a strong group of hitters, the Storm Lake St. Mary's volleyball team is looking to be in the mix for a high Northwest Conference finish this season.
The Panthers return five starters from last year's 5-17 team. They include setter/outside hitter Abby Richardson, middle blocker Janie Imming, outside hitter Jess Lussman, libero Becky Lenhart and hitter Emily Lenhart.
"We're looking for a high conference finish," Richardson said early last week. "We lost some good players, but we also return a lot of experienced players."
Lost to graduation last season were Maggie Lange, Ashley Schultz. Colleen Smith, Kristen Vogel and Cassie Weaver.
St. Mary's also has a new coach this season, as Heather Beal takes over Michelle Rubel. Beal is optimistic about the season, but knows it will take time for her team to learn new systems and strategy.
"In (preseason) scrimmages so far, we've been a little bumpy at the start of matches," she said. "Once we get into a rhythm, we play very well."
Imming has developed into a strong hitter and blocker. In 2005 as a junior Imming, finished with 60 kills, or about .8 kills per game. Imming added a team-high 24 assisted blocks and seven solo blocks.
"Janie is really hitting the ball hard so far," coach Beal said. "She's going to be our top blocker as well."
Beal would like to use Richardson exclusively as an outside hitter, but may have to use her at setter. She was the Panthers' leading hitter last year, coming up with 76 kills, or 1.1 kills per game. Abby also came up with 16 blocks last season and served with 92.5 percent accuracy.
As a setter, Richardson finished with 115 set assists. Colleen Smith led the Panthers in that category with 124 assists.
If Beal does decide to move Richardson to a permanent role as outside hitter, Camille Pickhinke and Robyn Bredvick would be the two setters.
"We'd like to have Abby hitting all the time, but I'm not sure we're ready for that yet," she said. "We've been experimenting with a lot of different combinations so, and we won't really know much until we get some real game competition."
Lussman just returned from a trip to Europe and hasn't been practicing with the team during much of the pre-season.
"Jess is going to be one of our top offensive players," Beal added. "She's been staying late after practice and working on hitting and serving. So far, she looks like she'll be a real asset to our team."
In 2005, Lussman finished with 20 kills and added 187 ace serves. She had 100 digs, second on the team to Richardson's 125.
Becky Lenhart, meanwhile, gives the Panthers some athleticism in the back row as a libero. She played in all 72 St. Mary's games last season, finishing with 81 digs. Her sister Emily will be a solid hitter and also a strong back row player., Coach Beal added that two players are battling for the middle hitter spot, but that both will see playing time. They are Rylee Paterson and Annette Frank.
Lending depth to the Panther this season will be Erin Broich and Christine Pudenz. Helping out in the back row will be freshman Melanie Snyder.
"Our key this season will be to play as a unit," Beal said.
She added that her team scrimmaged a number of conference teams during a recent Jamboree at Sioux Central High.
"We've played well at times," Beal said. "When we struggle, the girls have a tendency to get down on themselves.
"We have come a long way since the start of practice, but we still have a lot of different skills to work on," she added.
Richardson said the team will be more experienced this season,with the five seniors leading the way.
"We have some younger players who will play some important roles on our team," she said.
"It's going to be a tough conference, with every game being tough."
Richardson agreed with Beal that Schaller-Crestland, Sioux Central and Newell-Fonda could be the favorites for Northwest Conference title.
"We should be able to finish high in the conference," she added.
Imming, who has started on the varsity each of the past two seasons, says the Panthers will be strong in most facets of the game.
"We have good hitters like Abby and Jess and some great back two players like Becky (Lenhart)," she said. "Jess is also good at digging hits.
"We've looked good so far, but we still need to work on blocking and overall court coverage," Imming said.
The Panthers open the season today in Sac City against Sac City and Siouxland Christian.
Saturday they are at a tournament hosted by Coon Rapids-Bayard.Their home opener is Thursday, Sept. 27 against Clay Central Everly. They open conference play at home Sept. 11 against Pomeroy-Palmer.