"We have gone from 7 wins to 12 wins over the last two seasons, so obviously we would like to improve upon that and try to get a winning record this year," said St. Mary's head coach Ryan Berg. "We also hope to improve statistically in a variety of categories. Being in the race for a top spot in the conference is also something we are shooting for. We have a lot of experience back. If we can keep making improvements in all areas, our experience should help us be very successful this year."
Last year, the Panthers ranked towards the bottom half of the conference in terms of kills and kill efficiency. This is an area they appear ready to remedy with their three top hitters back from a season ago.
"With our experience, I think we are capable of great things," said Berg. "We just really need to work on always taking the proper approach, being explosive on our jump, and swinging with power. When we do, our attacks will be tough to dig. If we don't do that, however, we will always be on the defensive, and that is not what we want."
Now a junior, Jasmine Demers led the way a season ago, totaling 2.23 kills per set and 174 on the year. Fellow junior Rene Drey followed with 142 kills, and senior Paige Carlson chipped in with 64.
"The key is getting more consistency from both Jasmine and Renae," said Berg. "They both have the ability to dominate, though with slightly different styles, but they are both still working on cutting down on their hitting errors. If they both find that consistency, it will greatly improve our chance at success. We have a handful of other players who can hit well with power at times but are still trying to put all the pieces together as well. It may take us several games to find out what our best combination of hitters will be. Paige, Maddie Laven, Rachel Todd, and Annie Flynn all have a shot at earning the two outside hitter spots and the right side spot. Freshmen Kenzie Laven and Emily Ivey have also shown some very good potential and could push for one of those spots once they get some experience."
The Panthers are locked in a the setter position with Ashley Lullman taking the reigns after splitting duties with Callie Besaw a season ago. Lullman totaled 157 assists.
"We expect her to play all the way around this year for us as she did most of the year two years ago," said Berg. "We are also working at trying to get all of our players more confident in their setting, knowing that there are plenty of times where Ashley may not be able to get in position to get the set off, and someone else will need to get the job done."
The Panthers ranked fourth in the conference in terms of aces a season ago and return their top three in Laven (93), Lullman (55) and Demers (42).
Defensively, Laven led the Panthers in digs last year with 197, while Demers had 111 to go with 27 blocks. Cassie Todd and her 137 digs are gone, and Berg looks to Mary Rose Timko and Carlson to offset the loss.
"Mary Rose Timko is a defensive specialist who normally plays back row for us, so she will certainly help out there. If Paige ends up staying at the outside hitter position, she will probably see more balls to dig, like Cassie did a year ago."
Berg likes the progress he's seen on the defensive side thus far.
"I have seen vast improvement in our passing so far this year. If we are able to get better first passes than we did in year's past we will easily be able to improve our swing percentage. I really want us to limit how often we give a free ball to the opponent because we didn't get a good first pass that allowed us to get a set that we could swing at."
St. Mary's neither won or lost more than four games in a row last season, bouncing back and fourth between two columns throughout the season. Berg puts a consistent level of play at the top of their goals this season.
"Consistency is the number one priority this year. We are working hard to increase our intensity and play with more passion that will hopefully keep us more focused on a regular basis. We want everyone playing as a team with the same goal in mind. I want them to play their hardest for each other so at the end of every game they know they didn't let their teammates down."
Sioux Central won the conference a season ago, but their 23-7 team was hit heavily by graduation. East Sac turned in a 30-5 year and will again be a team to contend with. Other than that, the majority of the conference floated around .500, much like St. Mary's.
"East Sac is probably still a favorite because they multiple returners," said Berg. "But I really think this year may be even more competitive than last season. I think nearly every team has a shot to beat anyone on any given night if they play well. With our returning experience, I hope to have us fighting for one of the top three spots, but as stated before, we have to play with intensity, passion, and consistency for that to be possible."
Assisting Berg this year will Allie Wagoner, a Galva-Holstein grad, as Berg's wife, Courtney Berg, stepped down from coaching duties.
The Panthers will take part in scrimmage action tonight, before opening the season next Thursday at Newell-Fonda.