With all but one of last year’s All-KCAC honorees returning, Tabor College volleyball head coach Amy Ratzlaff expressed excitement for the possibilities ahead in her 18th season.
Tabor finished tied for third in the conference with a 15-5 record in 2105, losing to top-seeded Ottawa in the KCAC semifinals and posting a season record of 23-12.
Ratzlaff said the team she will field this season will be stronger and more complete.
“Compared to last year, I do not feel like we have places on the court that will hurt us,” she said. “We always tried to manage those a little bit last year, and we don’t have those (this year). I feel we’ve got strong candidates for each position where we can make an impact.”
Tabor’s list of returners is led by first-team outside hitter Tena Loewen. The senior led the team in service aces and kills a year ago. Her 78 service aces ranked third in NAIA Division I and led the KCAC. She ranked fifth nationally in aces per set (0.58), 12th in kills (525) and 21st in kills per game (3.89). She hit .228 last season.
Loewen received honorable mention All-American honors for her efforts. A 2016 preseason selection, she is a two-time first-team recipient and was named KCAC Freshman of the Year in 2013. Loewen was also named the KCAC Champion of Character Female Student-Athlete of the Year for 2015-16.
“Tena has come into (the) season stronger than ever before,” Ratzlaff said. “She’s got great ball control. She’s very strong. She’s definitely taking on team leadership. All those things, help her embrace her senior year even more. To have my senior leader also as the KCAC Champion of Character is always a great scenario.”
Ratzlaff expects even bigger things from Loewen this season, based on the caliber of defenders surrounding her.
“Her game will go up a notch because we have other passers and other defenders this year that we have not previously had, so it will let her focus on her game more,” Ratzlaff said. “Sometimes teams would go after her a little bit to wear her down and to frustrate her, and I just don’t see that being a part of her game this year.”
Joining Loewen as a 2016 preseason team selection and all-conference honoree is senior setter/outside hitter Amy Horner. Horner earned second-team recognition last year and led the Bluejays in digs (489) in her first season with the team. She hit .157 with 363 kills.
“Amy is an incredible athlete, and her athleticism has only improved—which I didn’t think was possible—over the off-season,” Ratzlaff said. “She has come back from summer driven and ready to go.”
Horner has improved her ball control and consistency, Ratzlaff said.
“She is embracing her ability to contribute, other than just hitting hard,” she said. “We’ve always known she could hit hard, but now she really has worked on ball control and shots, and she’s an all-around player.”
Tabor’s third all-conference returner is sophomore setter/defensive specialist Keeley Kroeker. An honorable-mention selection, Kroeker record 897 assists during her freshman year.
“Keeley is always going to be a team player,” Ratzlaff said. “As a freshman, she did an unbelievable job.”
The strength of Tabor’s defenders will make the setters’ job easier.
“We have better passers,” Ratzlaff said. “They will get more balls in the locations they would like to get balls, and they’ll be able to mix it up more. I’m really excited to see what she’ll be able to do and how she’ll be able to grow with the kinds of passes she’ll get this year.”
Junior Megan Voth returns from a knee injury. She was a starting setter for the team her freshman year.
“Her court sense is really high,” Ratzlaff said. “She’s got a great feel for the team and the court.”
The Bluejays will need to replace first-team middle blocker Katelin Horstick, a two-time All-KCAC first-team selection. Returning to help fill the void are senior Miranda Leibold and junior Sydney Peitz.
“(Miranda) is really doing well,” Ratzlaff said. “She goes to get the ball and a lot of good things come from that. She adjusts well, she’s positive and she’s a great senior leader.
“Sydney has played some middle for us. She’s got the long levers. She’s extremely intelligent. She knows the game, processes the game well, and blocks. Her blocking is one of her gifts.”
Also returning is senior right-side hitter Kim Hockley, junior outside hitter opposite Brooke Holloway, sophomore setter Katie Frankenbery, and sophomore defensive specialist/outside hitter Mikayla Peterson.
Ratzlaff has added two liberos, both juniors, to her lineup. She gives them high praise.
Ali Jost comes to Tabor from Cowley Community College, while Haley Falk is a transfer from Cloud County Community College.
“Both of those girls are unbelievable defenders, passers (and) teammates,” Ratzlaff said. “They have literally melded into our team perfectly. The level of play on the court is so much higher on both sides because of them. They’ll be able to serve-receive unlimited numbers of balls. Our serve-receive right now is better than I’ve ever seen our serve-receive in my 18 years at Tabor College.”
In the past, Ratzlaff said the Bluejays have turned other position players into liberos, adding that having two individuals who specialize in that role will make the game more enjoyable for players and fans alike.
“We’re going to be a fun team to watch because rallies will be good,” she said. “We won’t have a lot of black holes that have to be dealt with. We’ll see a team that’s going to get balls, that’s energetic and keeps the play alive. That will be fun for all of us, including our fans.”
A third transfer is sophomore outside hitter/right-side hitter Tianna Frazell from Kansas Wesleyan.
Freshman Kendra Kroeker is a middle blocker from Oklahoma Bible Academy, who is learning the system and will be an option for the middle position, Ratzlaff said.
She spoke highly of all of her incoming freshmen:
“Our freshmen have bought in (and) are sold out. They are working hard. I feel like at any point, the freshmen could go in and be ready to do whatever they believe needs to happen.”
Overall, Ratzlaff said each of her players has shown improvement over the off-season.
Picked third by conference coaches in the preseason poll, the Bluejays will seek to contend near the top of the KCAC.
“I’m great with being picked third because we do have new players on the court and they’re going to have to prove themselves in the games,” Ratzlaff said. “Practice and games are different. We do have some strong teams in the conference. There’s no doubt we will have our hands full.
“This group will continue to work hard, continue to be molded, continue to grow. By the end of the season, when the chemistry is there and the rotations are there, it’s going to be a fun season for us.”
Tabor opened the season with a five-set loss at MidAmerica Nazarene Aug. 23. The Bluejays will play their first KCAC opponent Aug. 31 at Friends, then Tabor will play in the Kansas Wesleyan tournament this weekend.