Reloaded- Junior core will lead Tabor’s title defense

This group of talented juniors, three of them newcomers, will form the nucleus of Tabor?s volleyball team this fall. Pictured are (from left) Clancey Kelley, Audrey Schellenberg, Heather Witham, Maggie Weinman, Taylor Lawrence, Jesica Brucks. Despite an absence of seniors, the Bluejays are considered favorites to win their sixth KCAC title in seven years. Andrew Ottoson. Click image to enlarge

After a sixth consecutive conference championship season and the graduation of six top-flight seniors, the Tabor College volleyball program has much to do to stay at the top of the Kan?sas Collegiate Athletic Conference.

A week ago, the conference coaches opined that the KCAC champion Bluejays should remain atop the standings?despite the departures of Ashley McKillip, Lindsey Vogts, Ashley Malcom, Kelsi Suderman, Traci Neufeld and Staci Frick.

Frick and Vogts were both unanimous all-KCAC first-team selections in 2006; Suderman and Malcom were second-team picks.

On the strength of that group, Tabor put together a 15-3 conference record in 2006, and in their absence edged Bethel for first place in the preseason coaches poll.

?We?re going to be a strong offensive team?we?ll be playing Tabor volleyball?but there will be a bit of a new look to us, too,? head coach Amy Ratzlaff said.

?It is still early, and this group seems pretty flexible,? she added. ?I think they?ll play well out of system?when chaos happens, they seem to be adjusting well.?

?I think serving and offense will be strengths.?

Cultivating a ?sixth sense? awareness required for strong positional play is a priority in the early going.

?Right now, we have to work at learning each other?s movements and body language?and hopefully we can do that pretty quickly,? Ratzlaff said.

?I?ve been spoiled because I?ve had a number of groups that have been together four years and can step onto the court and be ready to go from that standpoint.?

Chemistry often takes time to develop and years to fine-tune, but Ratzlaff has high hopes her team will learn to read each other quickly.

?Obviously, we don?t have four years to learn it,? she said. ?Hopefully by the end of next week, we?ll have a feel for it.?

Senior leadership would help, but even without a senior on the roster, the squad is having no trouble maintaining its focus so far.

?Everybody is pretty intense vying for a position?it?s pretty serious in the gym,? Ratzlaff said.

With multiple spots up for grabs, Ratzlaff is not annointing a starting lineup yet.

?We won?t get down to making those decisions until early next week,? Ratzlaff said. ?Anybody returning who played some varsity last year will be at an advantage.

?With all the new players up for positions, we?re battling it out to decide who will start.?

Setter Audrey Schellenberg (5 feet 6 inches), outside hitter Jesica Brucks (5-7) and defensive specialist Maggie Weinman (5-3) are the three returning juniors that will help Ratzlaff?s group of 10 recruits get acclimated to the program?s standards.

?Audrey was (statistically) first in the conference in setting,? Ratzlaff said. ?Audrey brings visibility of the offense. She knows what the offense needs to look like and she?ll get it done.?

Brucks also has considerable experience with Tabor?s style of play.

?Jesica brings back the most experience at the hitting position we?ve got, and she has solid fundamentals,? Ratzlaff said. ?She?s a good role model for the rest of the girls.?

Weinman brings defensive aptitude and several important intangibles to the table.

?Maggie has focused on learning our defense, and she knows what?s going on,? Ratzlaff said.

?And Maggie is like the spirit of the team?someone who likes to have fun?and the girls respect her for it.?

Sophomore outside hitter Carly Kroeker (5-10) also figures prominently in the mix.

?Carly played a consistent right side in about half the games for us last year, so she?s ready to make a big impact,? Ratzlaff said.

Three of the newcomers arrived by way of transfer: Heather Witham, Ashley Cohlmia and Taylor Lawrence.

?I recruited these girls hard coming out of high school, and even though it wasn?t the right time for them at that point, I think they?re more fired up to be here now.?

Witham, a 6-3 junior, gives Tabor an imposing presence in the middle of the front line. She transferred from Sterling at the semester break.

?Heather obviously brings height, and having someone who is 6-3 lets us play a whole different type of ball game in the middle,? Ratzlaff said. ?She?ll be very hard to defend and she has come in very motivated?she?s working very hard.?

Cohlmia (5-10) is an outside hitter and libero transferring from University of Montevallo, an NCAA Division II school in Alabama. A sophomore, Cohlmia possesses a versatile combination of skills.

Lawrence arrives in Hillsboro with junior standing. A former all-state performer at Conway Springs, she transfers from the University of North Texas, an NCAA Division I school.

?Every time I?ve seen Taylor step on the court, she?s playing better than she did the day before,? Ratzlaff said. ?She?s extremely strong for us in every position on the court, as is Ashley (Cohlmia).

?They?re good volleyball players,? she added. ?They know the game about as well as anybody I?ve been around. They know how volleyball works, they?re strong and they have solid skills.?

Clancey Kelley, a junior, will play her first season of volleyball in her third year at Tabor. Kelley has starred with the women?s soccer team the past two years but will bring her full energy and athleticism onto the volleyball court this fall.

?She is a true athlete?fast, feisty, and she brings a spark on the court,? Ratzlaff said. ?She?s picking up the skills very quickly, because she played (volleyball) a couple years ago and because of her athleticism. She?s picking it up faster than I ever thought she would.?

Six incoming freshmen and four other returning sophomores are pushing hard for playing time.

?It is healthy for a strong program to have strong incoming players every year,? Ratzlaff said. ?It is necessary to have a junior varsity that allows them to continue to grow.

?I like getting girls as freshmen,? she added. ?We?ve grown groups of girls that have come in all at once, where we?ve had groups of six come in together as freshmen and graduate together. It has been healthy for our program.?

Ratzlaff has also been satisfied with the goals the member of the team have set so far.

?We?re in no position to focus on a championship right now,? she said.

?I?m pleased to see that the women are setting short-term goals, the type of goals we have to accomplish in order to see the bigger vision of winning the conference,? she added.

Tabor?s first action will come Friday when they compete for the first time at the McPherson College Tournament.

The Blue?jays? first opponent will be Avila College, starting at 6 p.m. On Saturday, Tabor is schedule to play matches against Baccone (1 p.m.) and South Dakota Tech (5 p.m.).

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