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The Lakeland College women's volleyball team is off to the start it hoped for this season, posting a 3-0 record in the Northern Athletics Conference.
Although the Muskies currently sit at 7-8 overall, the squad has been competitive against some tough nationally-ranked opponents this season, as they have battled No. 6 St. Thomas (Minn.), No. 8 UW-Oshkosh and No. 10 Carthage.
The Muskies can attribute a portion of this success to the growing number of local players the squad has recruited in recent years.
Sophomore outside hitter Brittanie Paulus (Belgium/Ozaukee) and freshman setter Kristine Raeder (Sheboygan Falls/Oostburg) have made immediate contributions in the starting line-up. Sophomore middle hitter Jessica Keller (Oostburg/Oostburg), freshman defensive specialist Blia Xiong (Sheboygan/North) and freshman outside hitter Andrea Mueller (Manitowoc/Lutheran) have worked their way into the squad's regular rotation.
"They have all been huge assets to the team," said Lakeland head coach Chad Schreiber. "Brittanie made the All-Conference team and All-Rookie Team last year, and is a starter and a captain this year."
Paulus, an integral cog for the squad on both offense and defense, led the team in digs in 2006 with 462, while also totaling 259 kills and 35 service aces. She continues to provide that same level of energy this season, leading the Muskies in kills with 132 and is second in digs and service aces with 165 and 14, respectively. She has also been named to the All-Tournament Team in two of Lakeland's tournaments this season, most recently earning recognition this past weekend at the Wheaton College Invite in Wheaton, Ill.
Keller appeared in 30 games last season, registering 45 kills and looks to surpass those numbers already this year, as she has 26 kills in 14 games played so far. She will look to continue to increase her role on the floor as the season progresses while sharing time with the squad's two other prominent middle hitters, senior Shelly Bruni and sophomore Kim Linger.
"Jess Keller is an example of local talent sometimes going unnoticed," Schreiber said. "I saw her play in high school, and I think she wasn't on most coaches' recruit lists because she was not used as a primary offensive option. I saw a player who had good feet and was agile and coordinated. She just needed to develop some speed and be exposed to some skills she hadn't been asked to do before.
"Right now, we view the middle hitter position as two spots for three starters. Kim and Shelly have gotten the bulk of the starting time so far, but more recently Jess has been splitting that playing time. I expect those three to share those two spots the rest of the year."
The squad's three local freshmen have also been putting up solid numbers, which has helped them gradually increase their court time despite still making adjustments to the college game.
"The other freshmen that have come in this year are more ready to play than freshmen in the past," Schreiber said. "Kristine broke into the starting line-up recently, Blia has been a regular sub and Andrea has been a spot sub that has been put in by need, not just for exposure. All three of them have contributed a lot already."
Raeder has seen the court in 28 games so far this season, racking up 143 assists, while Xiong has played in 26 games and has helped provide the squad with a boost on defense with 26 digs. Mueller's steady play has granted her court time in 18 games.
Lakeland has seen the number of quality local players on its roster increase in recent years, thanks to the expansion of its summer volleyball camps.
"Since I have been at Lakeland, I have wanted to develop relationships with the best local players," Schreiber said. "For awhile, the problem was that there wasn't a lot of local talent. I hope that we have contributed to the talent getting better here through the summer camps we have done and the relationships we have built with local coaches."
Although Lakeland has had a few talented local players on its roster throughout the years, including Kiel native Heather Heberlein, who was a two-time Lake Michigan Conference MVP in 2004 and 2005 as well as a 2005 honorable mention All-Region selection, the number of players has increased in the past few years.
"Even though we have only had a few local players in the past, the success of those players has made the current locals see that a local player will enjoy it here and be successful," Schreiber said. "Just being visible to them through the camps has been huge for us, and we have been able to help local volleyball get better.
"Since we have had the new gym in the Wehr Center addition, we have been able to run summer camps on campus, which is something we weren't able to do in the past when we had just one facility. Now the kids are on campus seeing what our facilities are like, meeting the staff members and eating in the cafeteria."
Several of the younger players on the Muskies' roster were exposed to Lakeland in exactly that fashion at a young age.
"Brittanie was coached by Jacob Helgeson, our former men's assistant coach, who now coaches at Ozaukee," Schreiber said. "Blia, Andrea and Kristine have been in our summer camps, so we have known about them since they were freshmen or sophomores in high school."
This connection formed between the players and Lakeland has made the idea of donning a blue and gold uniform sound even more attractive to high school seniors.
"Any time you build trust and familiarity with a person, it makes them feel comfortable," Schreiber said. "As much as a high school senior will tell you they want to go away to school and experience something new, they still tend to flock to a school that a family member went to or a friend is going to. I'm sure the fact that we established that familiarity and comfort level with them contributed to them coming here."
The familiarity was exactly what convinced Raeder to become a Muskie, as her history with Lakeland's summer camps and knowledge of Schreiber's coaching style proved more appealing than her other options.
"I used to play a lot of tournaments here when I was little, so I knew a lot about Lakeland," Raeder said. "I kind of wanted to go far away from home, but now I like being closer because I can go home whenever I want. I also knew some of the players, like Brittanie Paulus, because I played against her in high school."
The idea of staying close to home was also the best option for Paulus, as Helgeson, her high school coach at Ozaukee, was a factor in her joining the Muskies' roster.
"Coming in it was easier for me because I already knew how the team played, plus it was close to home and I'm a small-town girl so I didn't want to leave," Paulus said.
The girls have also forged strong bonds with their teammates thanks to a shared competitive mindset and team goals.
"I like the girls because we have a lot of fun, and having an intense coach is fun too," Paulus said. "I'm expecting us to do very well this year, especially in conference, and we would love to see a game in the NCAA Tournament. To do that, we have to play really well in our next couple of tournaments in order to get a bid."
Schreiber and his staff will continue to encourage the advancement of volleyball in the Sheboygan area in years to come, with hopes of continuing to help girls improve their skills and increase their ability to contribute at the college level.
"It's fun for us to be fans of local volleyball right now because we know more of the kids," Schreiber said. "In turn, I hope it's fun for them to cheer for us and come watch us because now they are more familiar with some of our roster. We're hoping this turns into a college that volleyball fans in the Sheboygan area embrace and support."