Bluejays seek 3-peat of conference crown – and more

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN
by Tom Stoppel

The Free Press

Winning back-to-back-to-back titles in any sport is a difficult accomplishment at any level, but the 2003 edition of the Tabor College volleyball team has a “three-peat” squarely in its sights.

Under the guidance of fifth-year coach Amy Ratzlaff and assistant coach Keli Chisholm, Tabor comes off its second consecutive KCAC title, having amassed a 21-7 overall record last year, including a 16-2 mark in the conference.

When the Bluejays begin their title defense, Ratzlaff expects to see six players who earned All-KCAC recognition last season, including four first-team picks.

“Our team strength will be our experience,” Ratzlaff said. “Knowing what I expect, and having played together for four years, these seniors can read my mind.”

Speaking of minds, the Bluejays return four seniors who earned Academic All-American recognition last season.

“Is that not amazing?” Ratzlaff asked. “These seniors have their act together both on and off the court. They’re just amazing Christian women who excel in the classroom, on the court and in life itself.”

Angela Kroeker, a 5-8 outside hitter and a multi-sport athlete, is a Hillsboro product who earned All-American and All-KCAC honors last year.

“Angela has been a very stable player and does her job well,” Ratzlaff said.

Senior Sara Haggard McAllister, a 5-feet 7-inch setter from Fort Collins, Colo., returns after earning first-team All-KCAC honors and also second-team All-Region IV honors.

“Sara is an amazing setter with great hands,” Ratzlaff said. “She was the ‘freshman of the year’ her first year and is very well respected around the conference.”

Another senior earning All-KCAC first-team honors as well as Academic All-American honors is Laura Campbell (6-0), a middle blocker from Wichita.

“Laura really thinks when she’s on the court,” Ratzlaff said. “She’s very consistent.”

Carmen Hein, another Hillsboro product, used up her eligibility on the basketball court, but has another year left for volleyball, much to the delight of Ratzlaff.

A 5-6 defensive specialist, Hein was last year’s defensive player of the year in the KCAC, a first-team All-KCAC selection, and an Academic All-American. She is the spark plug that ignites the Bluejay engine.

“Carmen is our little spice on the court,” Ratzlaff said. “She’s fast and a tremendous leader.”

Rachelle Regier, a 5-10 middle blocker from Madrid, Neb., rounds out the senior class. Regier earned honorable mention All-KCAC honors last year.

“Rachelle brings a lot of quickness to the court and works very hard to make our offense run smoothly,” Ratzlaff said.

“Tabor is blessed to have five returning seniors that have established an extremely competitive tradition at Tabor,” Ratzlaff said. “These ladies signed during my first recruiting season with a desire to make an immediate impact.

“In 1999, five of our six starters were freshmen and we began the season 3-6,” she said. “But they worked harder and went 6-3 the second half of that season. They’ve been KCAC champions ever since and they have set their goals for this season.

“They deserve any success that comes their way. They have truly been champions on and off the court for Tabor volleyball.”

Additional returning players include Erin Loewen, a 5-9 junior from Augusta, an outside hitter. Loewen received all-conference honorable mention team last year.

Others expected to make major contributions this season are Shannon Kroeker, a 5-11 sophomore outside hitter from Hillsboro, Jill Hein, a 5-9 Hillsboro native who plays middle blocker, Johannah Love of Wichita, a 5-6 sophomore defensive specialist, and 5-7 Kerri Schmidt, a junior setter from LaCrosse.

With such a bevy of talent returning, Ratzlaff wasn’t quite sure what her recruiting class would look like this past year, but Tabor’s recently established tradition is already paying dividends.

“I didn’t expect to have a good recruiting year because we have no starting positions available,” Ratzlaff said. “It’s hard to recruit into the KCAC with no spots open.”

But Ratzlaff not only signed six athletes, she signed what she thinks is a strong collection of talent, including three athletes familiar to area sports fans: Staci Whitcomb, a 5-7 outside hitter from Moundridge, her teammate Lindsey Vogts, 5-10 middle blocker, and Traci Neufeld, a 5-7 setter from Hesston.

Joining that trio will be Ashley Scherrer, a 5-10 outside hitter and setter from Limon, Colo., Ashley McKillip, a 5-10 middle blocker from Wauneta, Neb., and the sister of Amber, a member of the Bluejay basketball team, and Kelsi Suderman, a 6-0 outside hitter from Garnett.

Ratzlaff said several factors figured into her recruiting success.

“First of all, my existing squad, because they are such wonderful women, are magnets for these freshmen,” she said. “The freshmen see what they want to become a part of and that’s a big drawing card.

“Second, these incoming women want to be a part of something successful. I told them they should never want to sign somewhere they’ll start as a freshman because that means there’s nothing there.”

Ratzlaff said she hopes the opportunity for the freshmen to surround themselves with other talented players will guarantee they won’t just enjoy one good year, but will create a great career at Tabor.

“My seniors bought into our program before we had anything,” Ratzlaff said. “I couldn’t guarantee them any wins, and they didn’t even know whether I could coach. They really said we believe in this, and that’s what has established our program.”

Ratzlaff said her freshmen will learn what Tabor volleyball is about before they take over.

“We won’t have to have all new values and an all-new look next year after we graduate these seniors,” she said. “Hopefully, these women will learn what we want to be and that will carry over into next year.”

Based on the returning wealth of talent, Tabor is favored to win it’s third title in as many years. But Ratzlaff said the title will have to be earned.

“Bethel will be a tough team and I think McPherson is an up-and-coming team in the KCAC also.”

Because of the mix of veteran and new players, Ratzlaff thinks team chemistry will be a critical component in her team’s success this season.

“Team chemistry can make or break you faster than anything on the court,” she said. “I really have a lot of respect for our seniors, and I haven’t promised any amount of court time to any of the incoming freshmen.

“These freshmen are in a good place,” Ratzlaff added. “We’ll have great practices.”

In order for the Bluejays to successfully defend their title, Ratzlaff knows her team will have to dig deeper.

“We’ll have to have more than a desire,” she said. “It’s going to take an expectation of the whole team knowing we can do this and having confidence knowing we have strong teammates on the floor.

“No one has to carry anyone,” she added. “We just need to enjoy it, and the more we do that, the more the wins will come.”

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