One Tabor senior returns for a run at a KCAC four-peat

Tabor College volleyball coach Amy Ratzlaff knows losing players to graduation is a part of her job, but that doesn’t make it any easier.

Ratzlaff, who owns an 83-55 career record and three Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference coach-of-the-year awards, saw five seniors graduate who were instrumental in bringing home three consecutive KCAC titles, finishing 17-3 in conference play and leading Tabor to a Region IV tournament appearance.

“Those five seniors have been such a large part of Tabor College,” Ratzlaff said. “I’ll miss not only their talent, but their personalities.”

But no one, including the other KCAC coaches, are feeling too sorry for the three-time defending champs. They picked Tabor to finish second this season.

But Ratzlaff didn’t head into this season blind.

“Last year we recruited with the knowledge we’d be losing those seniors, so we brought in six freshmen who we trained as much as we could,” she said.

“We hope they’ll be able to make up that gap, but also know what Tabor volleyball is all about so we wouldn’t have a turnover in the program as far as how we play the game.

“That’s helpful-even though we lost a lot, who we are is still intact,” she added. “Anytime you start winning, it becomes an expectation and a tradition that feeds itself, and establishing that mentality is about as important as any fundamentals we can teach.”

Ratzlaff returns just one senior, but a wealth of talent on her 12-member roster.

Erin Loewen, a 5-feet-9 outside hitter, is returning from an ankle injury that sidelined her during last year’s title run.

“I’m so excited to have Erin back,” Ratzlaff said. “She’s such a capable leader, but hasn’t needed to lead in the past.

“It’s very natural for her to step in and lead the team and the other women expect her to do that,” she added. “She’s the most team-oriented player I’ve ever coached.”

Perhaps Ratzlaff’s most talented returner is 5-6 outside hitter Staci Whitcomb. The Moundridge native was a first-team All-KCAC selection as well as its freshman-of-the-year last year while leading the team in per-game kills (3.18) and digs (4.20).

“Staci has a chance to be a future player of the year in our conference because she has such a good combination of offense and defense,” Ratzlaff said. “She’s valuable on both sides of the ball.”

Another returning starter is Shannon Kroeker, a 5-11 outside hitter from Hillsboro.

“Shannon seems to be continually developing a passion for volleyball,” Ratzlaff said. “She brings some good experience.”

Another Hillsboro native, Jill Hein, a 5-9 junior middle hitter, also returns. Ratzlaff said Hein is poised for a breakout year.

“She is and always has been a very talented athlete,” Ratzlaff said. “We used Jill on defense last year, but she’s capable of being an impact hitter also.

“Jill’s gift is her blocking ability, and that comes from being a natural athlete,” she added. “Her blocking comes from instinct and making herself do something without having to think-she reacts.”

Defensive specialist Johannah Love, a 5-6 junior, also returns with quality experience.

“She has great fundamentals and she knows the game very well,” Ratzlaff said. “She’s always been very solid.”

Also returning are a couple of 5-10 middle hitters, Lindsey Vogts and Ashley McKillip.

“Both women have worked on their games extensively,” Ratzlaff said. “They’ve both been very committed in the off season, trying to develop their skills and become more all-around players.”

Other returning sophomores will be 5-7 defensive specialist Traci Neufeld, 5-10 outside hitter Ashley Scherrer and 6-0 outside hitter Kelsi Suderman.

“Traci is our spunkiest player,” Ratzlaff said. “I love her personality as a defender on the court.

“Ashley is a phenomenal athlete and Kelsi is the hardest hitter on the team-she’s a terminator,” she said. “I think all 12 women on the roster have the ability to be impact players.”

Ratzlaff added just two players this season, but both are talented Hesston College transfers.

Anne Gunden, a 5-9 setter, was an All-American at Hesston. “She has the personality of a setter-she’s a perfectionist and is very aware of details and driven.

“She knows how to win ball games,” she added. “She sets very well, but she’s also an excellent defender who’s taller for the front, and we’ll benefit from that.”

Ratzlaff’s other addition is Katie Baysinger, a 5-10 outside hitter. “She’s used to winning, which is a requirement for our team,” Ratzlaff said. “She’s just a sweetheart with very good skills.”

Ratzlaff hasn’t faced uncertainty recently. Even though a bevy of talent returns, questions remain.

“I’m curious how all these pieces will come together,” she said. “We’ll only have one senior on our team and no freshmen.”

But one constant for the Bluejays is their approach to volleyball.

“Our women realize we’re serious about what we do at Tabor College,” Ratzlaff said.

With quality and flexibility at every position, Ratzlaff said some consequences of injury have already been addressed.

“We’re about three deep at every position, so we’ve allowed for adversity,” she said. “But it will depend on how quickly we get unified on the court and understand each other’s habits.”

Defending its KCAC title doesn’t put added pressure on this year’s team, Ratzlaff said.

“But I also know they don’t want to be on the team that doesn’t bring home another title,” she said. “If for no other reason, I believe the women want to give Erin her fourth championship.”

Action begins for Tabor in Branson, Mo., Sept. 3-4.

“We’ll face five of the best teams we’ll face all year, and then we come home and play at Newman against another top-four team,” Ratzlaff said. “We do that because we want the women to realize from the start where we need to get to by the end of the season.”

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