Area teams hope to forget past struggles and improve this season

Tri-County Area Prep Volleyball Review and Preview
""We know things may not always go our way, but if something bad happens, we want to have a short memory and focus on the next play," - Fall Creek High School prep volleyball head coach Matt Prissel

Coaches often talk about not dwelling on the past because there are so many plays and moments in any athletic contest that staying focused on the now rather than past success or breakdowns can be self-defeating in itself.

"We know things may not always go our way, but if something bad happens, we want to have a short memory and focus on the next play," Fall Creek High School Volleyball Head Coach Matt Prissel said. "When we can take care of our side of the net and do many of the little things well, the success we aspire for will be easier to attain."

That's not only true during a game or match but a whole season as well and for the Tri-County Area's prep volleyball teams, putting aside past struggles at the start of this season as conference action begins this week and staying focused even with recent success, becomes very important.

The case of Fall Creek is instructive. The Crickets suffered a rare losing season in the wake of recent success at 20-23 largely due to an injury to outside hitter Emalile Sorensen in a match against Osseo-Fairchild last year, the first Cloverbelt Conference match of the schedule last season and this season as well. Although, FC did not get off to a great start in 2022, this time around FC is 18-6 overall, coming off a 5-1 showing in the Sparta Invitational, played Saturday, Sept. 9. Fall Creek won over Arcadia 25-17, 25-22, Neillsville 25-19, 25-22, Mauston 25-10, 25-18, G-E-T 25-19, 25-11 and Menomonie 25-23, 21-25, 15-7 losing only to meet champion and host Spartans 25-20, 25-16.

For the day, FC was led statistically by Gracie Marten with 41 kills, 40 digs and whopping 14 aces. Next up is Anna Dougherty: 26 kills, 49 digs and also 14 aces. Caroline Grossinger had 16 kills and 11 blocks; Kambel Sell finished with 10 kills and 12 blocks; Lauren Dallas led the team in assists with 52, Ella Solfest had 40 assists and Grace Herrem finished with 52 digs.

"I have been really pleased with our attitudes and efforts in the gym," Prissel said. "We are being intentional with having great energy and trying to have "good vibes only" on our side of the net. A number of our girls have stepped up their leadership role on the team and as they have stepped up as leaders, our collective play has increased. Anna Dougherty and Gracie Marten put in a ton of time in the off-season to become six rotation players and they are showing that their hard work is paying dividends in both the front row and the back row. Caroline Grossinger has really worked on her skills to become a significant presence in the middle and has become a force on both offense and defense at the net. Our communication continues to grow, 2nd year Libero Grace Herrem brings a great court awareness, volleyball IQ, and has been the anchor of our team defense. Lauren Dallas in her second year as a varsity setter is "running the show" while Varsity newcomer Ella Solfest is doing a great job answering the call as our second setter. We still have a lot of work to do to reach the level we aspire for and we still have room to grow, but we enjoy being around each other and are having fun while working hard and working together to reach the standard and success that we want in our program. I have a great group of girls to spend the fall with and we have had a solid start--we are trying to get a little bit better each day and hope to be playing our best volleyball when the post-season arrives."

The Sparta Invite was the only action FC had last week in a busy early-season schedule. The week before Fall Creek competed in the Mondovi Quadrangular meet on Sept. 5 where they went 2-1. FC lost to Mondovi 25-17, 19-25, 15-10 but beat Eleva-Strum 25-19, 25-22 and Durand-Arkansaw 25-10, 25-23. Marten had 20 kills, 20 digs, five aces; Dougherty 16 kills, 23 digs, seven aces; Dallas made 35 assists; Herrem had 21 digs and Sophie Johnson scored five aces. Two days later Fall Creek competed in the Altoona Triangular, losing to Barron 25-22, 25-14 and beating the host Railroaders 25-21, 25-22. Marten had 15 kills and 16 digs; Dougherty 10 kills, 22 digs; Herrem 16 digs and Dallas 25 assists.

Fall Creek entered the regular season having graduated Tori Marten, JaneyAnne Grossinger, Jenna Fitch, and Marissa Dunham. Returning letterwinners include Grace Herrem, Gracie Marten, Anna Dougherty, Caroline Grossinger, Lauren Dallas, Emallie Sorensen.

"Within this group we have some great experience on the court," Prissel said.

By contrast, Augusta returns just two players, one of them being senior Olivia Meyer, with any experience from a 9-14 squad but which finished with a winning record in the Dairyland Conference at 6-3. Augusta graduated many of its top players including All-Dairyland players Kennedy Korger and Samantha Winsce. The Beavers not only practically have a new team but also a new head coach in Alexa Stensen. The Beavers started out 0-3, losing to Cadott and Neillsville in a triangular meet at Cadott on Tuesday, Aug. 22. They were beaten 3-0 in a single match at Durand-Arkansaw on Thursday, Aug. 24 but the Beavers improved from the start of the week to the close as they led in all three games against the Panthers but couldn't sustain the momentum they needed to pull out wins, losing by close scores 25-22, 25-23 and 25-18.

"We improved a lot," Stensen said. "We have a very young team as far as match experience goes and we played more competitive as the week went on and played better and we want that to continue."

Indeed, the Beavers carried the momentum from that performance to a 3-0 sweep of Greenwood at home Aug. 29. Last week Tuesday, Sept. 5 they split a triangular match at Greenwood, beating GHS again but losing to Plainfield Tri-County to make their overall record 2-4. AHS next match is their Homecoming match this Thursday, Sept. 14 vs. Independence/Gilmanton.

Augusta may have a young squad, especially with a large number of freshmen players in the program this season, but Coach Stensen feels they have the talent to be competitive.

"There's talent there it's just a question of getting their confidence up so that they are playing hard in all aspects of the game whether is digging, hitting, passing and especially communication."

That question of confidence affects Augusta's DC rival Eleva-Strum in particular. For if AHS needs to build confidence with a young team, E-S must do so with a veteran squad returning many letter-winners such as seniors Avarie Segerstrom, Annika Skoug and Kassidy Koxlien, juniors Kaya Franson, Terris Quick, Mackenzy King, Neeley Lasher and Ella McConnell and sophomore Aliza Kulig. The Cardinals graduated All-DC player Jaden Bautch from last season's 10-19 squad which finished 4-6 in the Dairyland. But early on all this experience didn't translate to immediate success. After a good start at the Glenwood City Invite back on Aug. 24, E-S went 0-3 in the Mondovi Quad and 0-4 in the La Crosse Aquinas Invitational held Sept. 2.

But a dramatic 3-2 win with game scores of 25-16, 19-25, 28-25, 13-25 and 15-13 at Osseo-Fairchild on Tuesday, Sept. 5 and 3-0 sweep of Alma/Pepin on Thursday, Sept. 7 in Alma, has the Cards at 4-8 overall and 1-0 in the Dairyland Conference and has head coaching Katie Skoug hoping Central is now on track for success this season.

"Our early schedule was tough but for the first time in this week our team really played with consistent energy throughout and brought it from the start," Skoug said. "That hasn't been true in the past. Hopefully it continues because we can do good things this season if it does."

Indeed, Central played with a lot of energy in Game 1 vs. the Eagles and burned them for a 25-12 win. Games 2 and 3 were closer but the Redbirds still pulled out 25-19 and 25-20 wins. While Skoug, King, Koxlien and Lasher did the bulk of the scoring combined for E-S against the Eagles, it was Kulig's week to shine for E-S. She was named Player of the Game by WHTL radio station for her heroics against O-F and scored key points and blocks when E-S needed them against A/P, especially in Game 3 when the Eagles rallied from a 19-10 deficit to come within a point at 21-20 when a pair of Kulig kills place two aces from Segerstrom ended the game and match.

Kulig has the potential to be one of the best middle hitters the area has produced since Fall Creek's Gianna Vollrath.

"Liza is in more control of her body and in control of her attacks on offense this season," Skoug said. "She can certainly be that go-to person when we need points and help to influence a match when it comes to opening up opportunities for other players on the team when defenses have to cover her and affect other team's attacks on the middle. She's also done a good job hitting angles and other openings in the defense. But, we still have to get her and our other hitters, of which we have many good ones, the ball and thus we have to improve and be consistent with our passing."

Eleva-Strum also served very well and had a decided edge in the serve-receive with eight aces.

Does this experience and Kulig's play make Eleva-Strum a contender in the Dairyland Conference this season? Back-to-back matches this week against league favorites, Cochrane-Fountain City at home Tuesday, Sept. 12 and at Eau Claire Immanuel Lutheran Thursday, Sept. 14, will be the proving grounds.

"These are traditionally the best teams in the league," Skoug said. "It's a tough challenge we face but if we can believe and see ourselves being right there with them, competing against them as hard as we can and playing good, consistent volleyball, there's no reason why not."

When it came to starts to a season, Osseo-Fairchild would certainly like to forget the first week.

The Thunder went 2-8 with their only wins over Eau Claire Immanuel Luther in the Mondovi Triangular on Thursday, Aug. 24 and against Kickapoo in the Black River Falls Invitational on Aug. 26 (they went 0-3 in the Loyal Quadrangular on Aug. 22 and were 1-4 at BRF).

But their play has improved over the past two weeks as they swept Blair-Taylor 25-10, 25-19, 25-18 on Aug. 31 at B-T and played Eleva-Strum down to the wire last Tuesday at home. OFHS is 3-9 overall before beginning league play this Tuesday, Sept. 12 at home vs. Fall Creek.

One thing head coach Levi Ward didn't want her team to forget was the fact they were down to the Wildcats 18-3 in Game 1 a year ago. This time around was much different as the Thunder smashed their way to a 12-2 start.

"We were in their first serving rotation for 11 straight serves and didn't want us to forget that," Ward said. "I'm was very pleased to have the start we did because it really carried over to the rest of the match."

O-F was the only prep volleyball team in the Tri-Count Area to finish at least at .500 last season at 16-16 but the Thunder were 0-7 in the Cloverbelt Conference and lost All-Western Cloverbelt player Madisyn Loonstra along with Rhi Prudlick, Taylor Gunderson, Hailey Meyer and Katie Skoug. They also lost returning junior setter Kara Skoyen for the season due to a knee injury and suffered other losses as well. But Osseo-Fairchild does bring back good hitters in seniors Halle Colby, Addisyn Koxlien to go with fellow seniors Chloe Gunderson and libero Hanna Giacomino and junior Bryssa Johnson.

"There good potential there to have Colby, Koxlien and Johnson be our top scorers up front and play tough defense as well," Ward said.

But while its important to work on and improve in hitting, passing, setting (esepcially with Skoyen's injury) serve-receive and communication, Ward is looking for more to have a strong finish to the 2023 season.

"We need leadership, mental toughness and just being together as a team with no finger-pointing," Ward said. "Our players, particularly our seniors showed this vs. Blair-Taylor and we have to have it every match here on out."

A look back and look ahead for Tri-County Area prep volleyball teams in the middle of the 2023 season

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