Written by Don Ratzlaff Tuesday, 28 August 2012 13:36
It’s been 24 years since a Hillsboro High School volleyball team began preparing for the upcoming season as a defending state champion.
Sandy Arnold, who coached the 39-6 Trojans to the Class 3A title last fall, said carrying that standard does make a difference.
“I think we have to work even harder,” said Arnold, who is 233-75 after eight seasons at HHS. “I think that part is big. I think the girls know there’s a bigger target than usual for Hillsboro.”
Even with the graduation of two all-league performers, middle hitter Krista Reimer on the second team, and honorable-mention setter Callie Serene, Arnold feels her 2012 team should make a serious run at the Trojans’ fifth straight state tournament appearance—and possibly a successful title defense.
“We were talking about things that seem impossible, and some people would say it would be impossible to repeat,” Arnold said. “It is extremely hard to do that, but you can’t go into this season in any other way than to think that you could do it again.
“And with the talent we have returning, I do think it’s possible.”
Heading the list of returning talent is Tena Loewen, a 5-foot, 11-inch senior who was the Trojans’ primary attacker and team leader last year.
Loewen’s post-season accolades speak to her success: a second straight first team all-league selection and a Kansas Volleyball Association selection for the 3A state all-tournament team, 3A first team all-state and 3A Player of the Year.
The only question about Loewen’s effectiveness this year concerns the knee injury and surgery she endured during basketball. But Arnold said Loewen has been working hard to rehabilitate the knee and is close to fully recovered.
“Just getting her into volleyball shape is going to take a little time,” Arnold said. “That’s the biggest thing with Tena right now. The will to get back and the desire to get back and the work ethic is obviously there. It’s just going to time to get back into it and get her timing down.
“It might be toward the end of the season before we truly see her back in her rare form—but that’s a good time to do it,” she added. “If we can hold our own until we get there, that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.”
Junior Addie Lackey (5-8), an all-league honorable mention pick last year, has elevated her game this fall at outside hitter, according to Arnold, giving the Trojans another go-to weapon.
“Addie seems to keep jumping higher and working harder and running faster—she’s turned it up a notch this year,” Arnold said. “She’s just extremely athletic, and you can tell her something and she picks it up so fast. That’s awesome.
“Obviously, she’ll be more of a go-to anyway because she’s another year older. But with Tena not right there yet, we’re going to rely on Addie a lot more—and she’s great in the back row, too.”
The loss of Reimer leaves a void at middle hitter that senior Erin Loewen (6-0) is a leading candidate to fill.
Working their way into the front-row lineup are two 5-9 freshmen, Alex Ratzlaff and Shannon Heiser. Both made significant contributions this past weekend during the league’s preseason tournament in Halstead.
“There are some positions open, and it’s pretty wide open right now,” Arnold said. “We’re trying to find just the right people to put in there.”
Arnold’s biggest question in preseason has been who will replace Serene as the team’s primary setter. Senior letter-winner Maci Schlehuber (5-7) seems to have won the job.
Arnold said she and her assistants, Collette Haslett and Jill Hen, considered moving junior Danae Bina (5-4), a second team all-league pick at libero, to the setter’s role.
“I know she could do it, but she is just so valuable (at libero),” Arnold said. “She makes things look so easy. The girls know she’s there, they trust her. I’m not sure I can pull that trigger, but we’ll see.”
Also working for playing time this season are seniors Christina Morris (5-8) and Ashley Bartel (5-8), juniors Maddie Duerksen (5-5) and Taylor Thiessen (5-9), who missed most of last season with a shoulder injury, and sophomore Emily Jost (5-8).
“This year’s team is an experienced team,” Arnold said. “The girls have a good understanding of our strengths, but more importantly, the areas that need to be improved if we hope to repeat last year’s success.”
Even though Hillsboro ended the season as state champions, the Trojans finished league play in third place with a 7-2 record behind Pratt (9-0) and Halstead (8-1).
Arnold looks for Pratt to be in the thick of the chase again this year, even though the Greenbacks lost one of their twin towers and best attacker, Aubrey Hoover (6-0), to graduation. Also gone is a second all-league first-team selection, Avery Neumann, their setter.
Arnold also sees Hesston and Sterling as key contenders. But she is quick to add, “I would hope we are close to the top of our league.”
In addition to the CKL preseason tournament, HHS will again compete at the Canton-Galva Invitational Sept. 29 and host the Trojan Invitational Oct. 13.
Another schedule highlight is matches against 5A schools Newton and host Great Bend at a triangular Oct. 4. Other key non-league matchups include a double-dual at Riley County Sept. 6, a match with Cheney Sept. 11 and a triangular at home with Hutchinson Trinity and Sedgwick Oct. 16 to end the regular season.
Coming off their first-place finish at the CKL tournament this past weekend, the Trojans were scheduled to play at home against Southeast of Saline, Marion and Moundridge on Thursday, then will face Hesston and Douglass, a 2011 state qualifier, Sept. 4 at Hesston.
The Trojans won’t have another home engagement until Sept. 25, when Smoky Valley and Lyons come to Brown Gymnasium for league matches.