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After making a habit of dominating the former Lake Michigan Conference with five straight conference titles, the Lakeland College women's volleyball team had a rough season in the new Northern Athletics Conference in 2006. The Muskies (18-18) finished fourth in the NAC at 8-3 and bowed out of the conference tournament after a first round 3-1 loss to Maranatha Baptist.
However, the squad's future is looking much more hopeful this fall as the team returns its entire starting lineup of players that gained at least one year of collegiate experience working together last season. According to head coach Chad Schreiber, the team's new-found motivation and returning experience have the potential to get the Muskies back to the level of success they have enjoyed in past years.
"Our goal is to get back to winning the conference," Schreiber said. "We're going to have to do it this year with ball control and a complete team effort. We're not going to have one or two stars that carry us, we're going to have to have a lot of people who are willing to step up and contribute at different times. I think our speed will also be a major factor."
To reach their goal, the Muskies will look to senior outside hitter and three-year starter Ashley Domask (Hortonville/Xavier) to help lead the team on the floor. Domask was named honorable mention All-NAC last season and finished second on the team in kills and digs with 264 and 363, respectively.
Junior setter Jessica Sparling (Addison, Ill./Addison Trail) will also be a key component to the squad's offensive strategy, as she finished with a NAC-leading 10.66 assists per game last season. Sparling was also the only Muskie to garner All-NAC team accolades.
"Our returning players have definitely carried a confidence this preseason that showed that they are returning starters, not just returning players," Schreiber said. "They've tried very hard to pick up where they left off and build from there. They appear ready for the challenge of getting back to winning the conference."
Senior middle hitter Shelly Bruni (Juneau/Lakeside Lutheran), junior right side hitter Heidi Kramer (Green Bay/NEW Lutheran), sophomore middle hitter Kim Linger (Eldorado/Laconia) and sophomore outside hitter Brittanie Paulus (Belgium/Ozaukee) will also be counted on to provide major contributions on offense and defense.
Linger and Paulus were also named to the honorable mention All-NAC team along with Domask, and were also members of the NAC All-Rookie team. Linger finished third in the conference at .298 hitting and also led the team in blocks with 66. Paulus was steady on the defensive end with a team-leading 395 digs.
Bruni and Kramer provided the young Muskies with seasoned experience, as Bruni was second on the team in hitting percentage behind Linger at .250 and Kramer led Lakeland's offensive attack with a team-high 275 kills. Senior Rachel Young (Davenport, Ia./Davenport Central) will also be counted on for her knowledge and leadership, particularly in serving as she finished third in the NAC in service aces last season with 60.
"The entire starting lineup has taken a step up again," Schreiber said. "It would be hard for me to pick out one person who is standing out more than another. As a group they are just better, and that's good because we're going to have to win as a team this year."
Other returning sophomores who made firm contributions last season include defensive specialist Tonia Strebelinski (Berlin/Berlin), who was very effective as the Muskies' libero for the vast majority of last season, utility player Kaylyn Kasper (Hilbert/Hilbert) and middle hitter Jessica Keller (Oostburg/Oostburg).
"Some 20/20 hindsight is showing that we made the right decision to go young last year and invest some time in the younger players," Schreiber said. "I'm not sure our record last year would have been all that different if we had gone with our more experienced players, but I think we're going to be a lot better this year because of it. They are playing older than their age already."
The Muskies will certainly need to play above their age this season, as they face tough competition in both their non-conference and NAC schedules.
"It's the toughest schedule we've ever had," Schreiber said. "We open up the first weekend with nationally-ranked teams. Elmhurst is a team that has been ranked, Illinois-Weslyan is also ranked and the tournaments at Oshkosh and Whitewater have teams that played in the final eight last year."
The team began last season strong at the same Elmhurst Tournament, defeating a then-ranked Elmhurst squad that is expected to be strong once again this season. The Muskies will also face UW-Oshkosh, ranked No. 9 in the preseason poll, at a challenging tournament in mid-October, followed by another big test against No. 2 UW-Whitewater in another tough tournament two weeks later. Tournaments at UW-LaCrosse, Wheaton and UW-Platteville throughout the season should also help keep the squad on its toes for NAC play, culminating in the conference tournament.
"I think the teams that finished in the top five last year will all be tough again, but maybe in a different order," Schreiber said of the NAC. "They all return two-thirds of their line-ups so I think they'll all be competitive. It's just a matter of if they can find go-to players to replace the few that they lost."
Aurora, a senior-dominated team that ran the table in regular season NAC play last year with an 11-0 record, was selected to finish third in the conference behind the Muskies in the NAC Preseason Coaches' Poll and should return a fairly strong group. Benedictine, who won the inaugural NAC Tournament crown in 2006, was selected to finish first by the coaches, while Concordia University, Wis., last year's runner-up, took the poll's No. 4 spot. Lakeland was selected to finish second, a ranking the Muskies would like to surpass this fall by keeping a hard-hitting, cohesive squad.
"Our strengths will be ball control, defense and aggressiveness in how we play," Schreiber said. "There's no lack of aggressiveness in how our girls play the game. We're going to need to focus on our depth and ball control.
"We also need to improve our serving quickly because a lot of what we do depends on how that first serve comes off. It should be a strength of ours, and at this point it has been a weakness in the preseason so far. We're continuing to spend time on it everyday to try to make it a strength. It sounds simple, but serving can make or break how well we do this year."
The remaining members of the roster will look to add to that depth, including senior right side hitter Alayna Flynn (Marquette, Mich./Marquette) and a host of sophomores, including middle hitter Amanda Ditter (Chilton/Chilton), setter Hannah Ellis (Edgerton/Cambridge), defensive specialist Yarixa Cruz (Spring Hill, Fla./Nature Coast) and outside hitter Heather Mayer (Greenfield/Whitnall).
The Muskies are also joined by six freshmen, a few of which could make immediate impacts off the bench.
"We're traveling five of our seven freshmen, so I think that they all can probably see some time on the floor at some point."
Defensive specialist Blia Xiong (Sheboygan/Sheboygan North) will push for court time in the back row, while setter Kristine Raeder (Sheboygan Falls/Oostburg), right side hitter Jessica Regester (Lake Geneva/Badger), middle hitter Shannon Robaczewski (Hillside, Ill./Proviso) and outside hitters Andrea Mueller (Manitowoc/Manitowoc Lutheran), Sam Shepeck (Gladstone, Mich./Gladstone) and Darramia Perteet (Bellwood, Ill./Proviso) will look to improve and adjust to the college game.
"At this point, it doesn't look like there's a freshman that is going to crack the starting line-up besides some defensive replacements," Schreiber said. "Blia Xiong will likely get on the floor for some defensive help. Andrea Mueller has show that she can handle the load of passing and Kristine Raeder is not far from being able to set a match as a back-up to Jess Sparling."
All things considered, the Muskies look to be on pace for a strong season with a talented cast of returnees, a healthy crop of newcomers and goals of reclaiming the conference championship crown that has become a Lakeland tradition.
"As bright as our future looks, the long-term outlook is even better when you look at the amount of sophomores and juniors we have contributing to the team," Schreiber said.